By Jonathan Olivier
I remember the first time I was confronted with true wilderness.
It was near the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide in Colorado. Water flowed over rocks and through crevasses clear, clean and uninterrupted. Flowers bloomed among pure, fresh air. And nowhere amidst the towering mountains or trees were signs of man – no buildings or roads. Only a small footpath left by hikers gave any inclination humans were ever present in the area.
The feeling of solitude, pristineness, and an ultimate connection to the earth beneath my feet, encapsulated every notion I’ve had in my short existence of why it’s important to sustain, and grow, wild places in the world.
I know others have felt the same riveting feeling, or revelation rather, I felt that day in the Colorado backcountry. And similar experiences are possible all around the country in almost every state in America due to a pivotal Congressional action in 1964 aptly named the Wilderness Act, which turns 50 this week.
The Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to preserve the primal places still left in the country. The act defines wilderness as “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which helps to preserve more than 100 million acres of officially designated wilderness in more than 662 Wilderness Areas across 44 states. But that’s just a blip on the radar – less than two percent of land in the contiguous United States, according to The Wilderness Society.
In Louisiana, only around 17,000 acres in three areas of the state have been set aside for protection: the Kisatchie Hills, Lacassine and Breton Island Wilderness Areas.
And while I am duly grateful for the public wilderness areas available to all, I know there’s more to be done, especially in Louisiana – not only for our enjoyment, but the preservation of the unique ecosystems and creatures that depend on them.
According to Charles Fryling, LSU associate professor and president of the Friends of the Atchafalaya, an environmental group, now, more than ever, is the time to focus on preserving wild places.
“As our populations increase and the need for resources off the land increase, what that means is that we have a shrinking natural area in Louisiana and our state is located in a very special place,” Fryling said.
“Think in terms of our endangered species with the Louisiana black bear, ivory billed woodpecker as a potential that it’s here, and the sturgeon. There are a lot of reasons why there’s a national interest, state interest, and a multi-national interest in keeping some natural landscapes in Louisiana.”
In states like Colorado and Oregon, one would be hard pressed to look at a state map without noticing huge swaths of green – national parks or forests – riddled with wilderness areas. Colorado, for instance, has 42 wilderness areas, four national parks and 11 national forests. Louisiana has one national forest.
It takes a push by the public to raise awareness about a special place that deserves federal protection. After all, a wilderness designation is the highest level of federal land protection, and Louisiana land is in desperate need of saving.
According to William Fontenot, conservation chair of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, it’s not that Louisiana lacks the space to designate wilderness. The vast coastal marshes abundant in south Louisiana offer thousands of acres of semi-wilderness, but therein lies the issue.
“Louisiana has more coastal wetlands than any other state and has lost more than any other state,” Fontenot said. “Louisiana has lost more [wetlands] than all the other states put together. The state has lost more than 1 million acres of coastal wetlands since the first data was collected on it, which was in 1935 with aerial photography.”
Closer to home, the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the most ecologically rich regions in the country and one of the last wild places left in the state, has little to no federal protection.
Oil companies have dredged canals, disrupting water flow and causing poor water quality; timber operations continue to cut down huge acreages of trees; and conflicting interests of private landowners, stage agencies and environmentalists keep the issue complicated.
The question still looms: is Louisiana behind the curve when it comes to wilderness preservation?
Given that all three wilderness areas in the state were formed in 1975, 1976 and 1980, and for more than 30 years no more have been added: perhaps.
So, while this week reflection of the passage of the Wilderness Act should include admiration and praise to the people and system created to designate wild places across the nation, it should also focus on the future and how in desperate need Louisiana is of protection.
The wilderness areas present today are isolated pockets of wild, and unfamiliar to those that experienced a truly primal America before colonization. But preserving these last precious parcels of wonder is more inherently our duty than it ever was.
The process to get any wilderness designated starts at the local level. It starts with grass roots efforts, individuals and becoming cognizant of how precious the land we live on is. Only then can representatives recognize a need and get the ball rolling. But, for now, the ball is in our court.