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The landmark Wilderness Act is 50 years old, and it’s still working.

By Ben A. Minteer

his September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the piece of federal legislation that created a national system of wilderness areas and established the principles for their management. Its passage was a shining moment in American environmental ethics: the statutory affirmation of a nation’s deep regard for the wild and a determination to devote considerable political and material resources to protecting it. Yet today there is a debate brewing about whether the act is still a vital and useful part of our environmental inheritance—or whether its best days may now be behind it.

Public appreciation of the wild, we must remember, took some time. Although precocious wilderness advocates like John Muir wrote in 1901 that “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild,” not many of his readers were yet willing to join the intrepid naturalist in wholeheartedly commending the rights of alligators, the beauty of swamps, and the moral worth of the wilder places and creatures on the planet.

Muir’s shadow, though, would prove long. A founder of the Sierra Club in the 1890s, his blowtorch rhetoric and religious zeal for the wild (for instance, he said that developers seeking to dam a valley in his beloved Yosemite were demonic “temple destroyers”) would gain a following as the 20th century wore on, inspiring a wide range of American wilderness writing and activism. Muir’s wilderness ethic would be magnified and diversified by a procession of prominent artists, writers, scientists, and advocates, from Ansel Adams to Aldo Leopold to David Brower.

But times have a habit of changing. Since at least the early 1990s, geographers, ethnoecologists, archaeologists, historians, and others have challenged Muir’s ideal of a wild and “untrammeled” pre-European North America. The notion of a pristine, pre-contact landscape has been obliterated by the mountain of historical evidence documenting the significant Native American technological alteration and control of the environment, from earthworks and forest clearing to the wide use of fire and wildlife management. Even Muir’s wild Yosemite has not been spared: Scholars have highlighted the historical role of California Indians in shaping the modern landscape of the Sierra Nevada.

Still, in 1901 Muir took comfort in thinking that there were parts of the Earth that he assumed would always have to be wild, forever impervious to the human footprint: the seas, the sky, the granite domes of Yosemite. We can breathe easy, Muir wrote, because we can “change and mar them hardly more than can the butterflies that hover above them.”

He was obviously wrong about that one.

Today we recognize (though not always without argument) the degree to which we’ve influenced and changed Muir’s wild world. It’s an impressive but fearsome litany of global impacts: human-caused climate change, intensive urbanization, the disruption of biogeochemical cycles, ocean acidification, pollution, overharvesting of resources, the spread of invasive species. Our technological enterprises have gone a long way toward transforming environmental systems across the globe to the extent that human-dominated rather than nature-dominated systems may now be the norm.

In fact, many scientists have described the collective outcome of these anthropogenic impacts as marking a new geological divide in the planet’s history, a transition from the Holocene Epoch to the current era of the “Anthropocene”—the age of humans. While some see a hopeful message in our being large-and-in-charge on the planet, because it means we can take responsibility for a world of our making, others find a much darker endgame awaiting a species able (and willing) to write its presence in the geological record.

Not surprisingly, these shifts in our historical, ecological, and technological understanding have ramifications for how we conceive of and manage the wilderness. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Christopher Solomon argues that the Wilderness Act’s “hands-off” management philosophy is woefully out-of-step in our era of rapid ecological transformation and outsize human influence. This view reflects a growing sentiment among many conservationists that the traditional preservationist model of the wilderness is no longer suitable for our changing planet of more than 7 billion people.

Instead, a more active and interventionist approach to managing wildlands, urban landscapes, and all the places in between is said to be far more suitable for a “post-wilderness” conservation. This new strategy would mean using natural-technological systems to provide ecosystem services for urban and rural communities—for instance, water purification and flood control. It also promotes the active manipulation of landscapes to improve their habitat value for both native and non-native species (via species introductions, plantings, and so on). And, in general, it elevates in stature those human-modified ecosystems, long devalued by conservationists, that retain many valued species and functions but that depart from the norm of historical (“natural”) ecosystems.

These friendly critics are probably right to draw attention to the limitations of the traditional Muir-style vision of an untouched wild landscape for informing effective conservation under global climate change. Wilderness areas are managed carefully for passive recreation and for ecological values, with resource extraction, road building, mechanized transport, and permanent installations generally prohibited unless special exemption requirements are met. Yet sometimes maintaining the full sweep of ecological values of a landscape, including the protection of biodiversity in a rapidly transforming environment, requires us to consider interventions that challenge these longstanding preservationist notions. It’s a situation that can pit the older Muirian ideals of untrammeled nature against the newer interventionist models.

Here in Arizona, for example, in 2007, an advocacy organization called Wilderness Watch successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for building water tanks in the Kofa Wilderness Area in the southeastern part of the state. The tanks and pipes were intended to provide water reserves for the region’s endangered bighorn sheep, which the managers were concerned had become stressed by a prolonged drought and hotter temperatures. Although the tanks were clearly intended for conservation purposes, Wilderness Watch argued that they were violations of the 1964 act’s prohibition against building installations that disturb wilderness character (and that the tanks were not effective to boot).

It’s true, then, that the act’s stringency can result in some controversial decisions and in some hard choices having to be made. At the same time, some of the wilderness critiques can be too broadly drawn, obsessing on the peculiarities of the act’s old statutory rhetoric (e.g., “untrammeled” nature) while discounting the practical tradition of active wilderness management. Although the act prescribes minimal technological interventions in wilderness areas—and this can require making difficult trade-offs among different wilderness and conservation values—the agencies responsible for managing these places (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service) have a history of engaging in active management of the wilderness when necessary, at least to a degree. Prescribed burning, species reintroductions (e.g. wolves), the stocking of non-native fish, pesticide spraying, the use of helicopters—these and other manipulations have and continue to take place in federally designated wilderness. Admittedly, these efforts may not go far enough for some critics, but it isn’t the case that managers’ hands are completely tied when it comes to actively intervening in wilderness areas to restore or enhance their ecological and recreational character.

Furthermore, despite its oft-lamented restrictiveness, the Wilderness Act may actually be more flexible in certain situations than we think. Some legal scholars have suggested that it could permit novel, perhaps even radical technological and management interventions for conservation purposes. For example, the active relocation of wildlife species to wilderness areas outside their native range in anticipation of the effects of climate change (aka “assisted colonization” or “managed relocation”) could, in fact, be permissible under the act if it’s deemed simpatico with the overall “wilderness character” of the landscape. That’s a far cry from “hands off” management.

Even if we agree that we need to revise our aspirations to promote “untrammeled” landscapes in 2014, it would nevertheless be a great mistake to go further and relax our political and legal commitment to the 1964 act. Doing so would inevitably weaken our protection of the nation’s wilder places. The passage of the Wilderness Act was a hard-won victory—it’s difficult to see how even a shadow of it could be passed again in today’s political climate.

In the end, even though Muir’s Yosemite is not a pristine wilderness, it’s still a breathtakingly wild place capable of inspiring old-fashioned Romantic awe and wonder. That holds true despite its wildness not being absolute—and even as it continues to evolve and change under human influence. Acknowledging this partly humanized, partly technological character of the wilderness, though, doesn’t require backing off from the view that we should still protect as much wildness as possible where and when we can. Cars, concessions, and parking lots are presumably a fixture in Muir’s northern California “temple” for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that we have to welcome unmanned drones orbiting over Half Dome.

And anyway, the real meaning of the wilderness can’t be found by poring over its legislative definition. It resides in the character and environmental culture its appreciation incites in a people. In our attempts to protect the wild from significant technological control, we open ourselves to Muir’s pleas to exercise humility and forbearance on the landscape. Although it may bear the mark of the human fingerprint, wilderness can still teach us the value of that proud and yes, proudly American environmental ethic. It’s the character instilled by observing, as Thoreau put it, “our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” And it’s a virtue still accessible to us if we are wise enough to protect its source, especially in the age of humans.

Muir, it turns out, was right about the most important thing all along.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Ben A. Minteer is a professor of conservation at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, where he also holds the Arizona Zoological Society Chair.