It’s hard to believe, boys and girls, but once upon a time not so long ago in what now seems a land faraway, the federal government wasn’t dysfunctional and Americans weren’t so polarized and the Congress actually passed meaningful legislation. Fifty years ago last week, for example, the Wilderness Act was signed into law.
Those who enjoy the Shenandoah National Park should be especially grateful for the act, says the park’s interpretive supervisor Debby Smith: Forty percent of the park is designated wilderness area, and it’s the only park service site in Virginia to have wilderness designation.
Moreover, the park’s wilderness area is one of the largest on the East Coast, and few others are as close to metropolitan areas. “For a lot of people, wilderness seems like a faraway place,” Smith says. “They have to go out west or to Alaska to experience wilderness. But it’s really right in their backyards.”
The Shenandoah’s wilderness designation translates to about 80,000 acres. And even though most of that area is easily accessible from Skyline Drive, that protected acreage is untouched and pristine. No buildings have been constructed in the wilderness area, and the use of mechanized equipment is as limited as possible. Visitors may see park staff using cross saws and other primitive tools if man-made intervention is needed at all.
“Everybody has a personal perspective that they bring to the wilderness, a renewal or hope or curiosity or solitude,” says Smith. “It’s a very personal thing.”
The Wilderness Act was not a one-time thing, but established an ongoing framework to protect future would-be wilderness areas. Even today, proposed Congressional legislation — some with surprising bipartisan support — would protect millions of additional acres. But inertia — or worse, rollbacks of environmental protections — seem to be the order of the day.
So next time you have any communication with our Congressman Robert Hurt, ask him — just out of curiosity — what he thinks the legacy of this Congress will be, 50 years hence.