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Health, Science & Environment

Wilderness Act Turns 50, Prompts Reflection in Utah

U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness, Washington County, Utah

The Wilderness Act turns 50 on Wednesday, and the anniversary has some Utahns thinking about the value of wild places

Congress created the formal system for protecting the nation’s wild places. It’s designated more than 107 million acres as wilderness. In Utah, 1.1 million acres of federal land has earned wilderness protection so far.

It might be a remote concept for many Americans, but it’s immediate for Utahns, says Stephen Trimble, a writer and photographer whose work has influenced congressional action on wilderness. He points out that wilderness is a vivid reality in the West, even for city dwellers.

“When we look up to Lone Peak from the Salt Lake Valley, we’re looking into wilderness, designated wilderness,” he says. “When we look up at Mount Timpanogos in Utah Valley, we’re looking into designated wilderness. And all of us who take hikes into those hills and climb Mt. Olympus or Mt. Timpanogos or Lone Peak, we are looking at land that has been preserved as wilderness. It’s remarkable.”

The Wilderness Act mandates protections for streams and desert and forest that are “untrammeled by man,” and that idea has been fodder for Utah politics for decades. Wilderness advocates want 9 million acres more in Utah to be conserved. Others contend that just 2 million acres more deserve to be put off limits to vehicles and development.

Trimble says the ongoing discussion is an important one.

“When we go to wild places, they restore us, for sure,” he says. “It feels good to be out in the middle of nowhere and out in the sun and using our bodies to walk across the landscape. And they amaze us with their beauty and their wildness and their wildlife. And our very act of entering into those places connects us with that place forever.”

The Utah Museum of Natural History and the Utah Sierra Club are cosponsoring an exhibit of photographs that celebrate the anniversary. Its called Utah Wilderness 50 and it opens Wednesday. Trimble helped select the photos. 

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