President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964, formally creating the National Wilderness Preservation System which was established to ”…secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Wilderness areas are not merely wild lands, but federal public lands designated by congress to receive the strongest possible protection from human impacts. In general, no roads or permanent structures are allowed in wilderness areas, nor are activities like logging, mining, or most vehicular traffic. More than 105 million acres of public lands have been designated as Wilderness since 1964, and it is estimated that as many as 200 million additional acres of roadless lands may be eligible for wilderness designation that today are at risk of being logged, mined, and otherwise impacted. Once these undesignated lands have roads built on them, they will no longer be eligible for wilderness designation, and the opportunity to have them protected as wilderness is gone.
American Whitewater was founded in large part to protect wilderness rivers and to foster their safe exploration and stewardship, as well as to protect the wild and natural character of all rivers. We maintain this commitment in our work today. Paddling is often the best way to experience rivers that flow through wilderness and is a use that is wholly supported by the Wilderness Act. The Act specifically cites “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of [non-motorized] recreation” as a primary function of wilderness protection. Aldo Leopold put it well in the book, A Sand County Almanac: “Wilderness Areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing.” Wilderness rivers and creeks are a rare delight for paddlers that desire to experience Nature on Nature’s terms, and to witness the spectacular beauty and remoteness that our country has to offer. Wilderness rivers also provide critical habitat for native species and deliver clean water to people and biota living downstream. Because it is good for rivers, good for paddlers, and at the core of our values, American Whitewater will always support the protection of our remaining roadless lands and their designation as wilderness, and will likewise support the protection of the Wilderness character and values of existing wilderness areas.
American Whitewater’s involvement with wilderness has most typically been in sharing knowledge of recreational use with managers, educating paddlers on low impact river use, participating in wilderness management planning processes, assisting with the development of permit programs, advocating for wilderness designation, and defending roadless lands. We are among the lowest impact user groups on wilderness rivers, and therefore generally have strong and positive relationship with wilderness land and river managers. We are always seeking ways to improve dialog with wilderness managers and to lessen our already low impact on wilderness and other remote rivers.
Rarely have paddlers’ rights to enjoy wilderness rivers been challenged, but it has occurred. The Sumter National Forest attempted to claim, in their decision to maintain a ban on paddling on the Chattooga River, that paddling was inconsistent with the Wilderness Act. They based their assertion on comments from other users who stated that paddling would disrupt the solitude of Wilderness. American Whitewater has provided extensive comments on this issue that can be found on our Chattooga Project page.
The Wilderness Act itself is relatively easy to read and should serve as an excellent resource for paddlers concerned with the stewardship and protection of wilderness rivers. More information on wilderness, including the Wilderness Act can be found at www.wilderness.net, www.wilderness.org, or on the website of any of the federal agencies that manage Wilderness Areas (NPS, USFS, USFWS, BLM).