Howard Zahniser

The founders of the Wilderness Society knew that the the early wilderness areas didn’t have adequate protections as it was relatively easy to reverse the administrative acts that created them. They knew that it would take stronger legal action on the federal level and began to craft legislation to accomplish this. Howard Zahniser became the executive director of The Wilderness Society in 1945 and went on to write 66 drafts of the Wilderness Act. The Act went through 18 Congressional hearings between 1956 and 1964, opposed by such industry giants as the American Mining Association, the American Pulpwood Association and the National Cattleman’s Association.

President John F. Kennedy endorsed the wilderness bill in 1961, and the Senate approved the Zahniser drafted bill that year, but the House radically altered their version of the bill and it died in committee that year. Howard Zahniser worked with the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee chair Wayne Aspinall (D-CO), one of the chief opponents of the bill, and other House representatives and eventually agreed to enough concessions to get The Wilderness Act of 1964 through both the House and Senate.

President Lyndon Johnson hands the pen he used to sign
the Wilderness Act of 1964 to Alice Zahniser. Also pictured
are Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Senator Frank Church
Mardy Muire, and Rep. Wayne Aspinall, among others.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act on September 3, 1964. Unfortunately, Howard Zahniser, who worked so hard to make the Act reality, didn’t get to see it finally enacted; he died in May of 1964 at the age of 58. President Johnson gave the pen he used to sign the act to Alice Zahniser, Howard’s wife.

The Wilderness Act established the United States’ National Wilderness Preservation System which permanently protects these federal public lands for future generations for both people and wildlife. There have been more than 100 separate Wilderness bills signed into law since 1964, designating approximately 107,500,000 acres of land as Wilderness. This is about 4.82% of the country, however, a little more than 50% of this Wilderness is in Alaska. The smallest Wilderness Area is Pelican Island, FL, at about 5 acres, and the largest is Wrangell-St Elias in Alaska at 9,078,675 acres.