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50 Years of Wilderness: One President's Goal to Protect Nature

By Elizabeth Kolbert
August 23, 2014; 3:10 AM ET
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The following excerpt and images are from the September issue of National Geographic magazine.

"The myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin,' uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home," the environmental historian William Cronon has observed.

© Michael Melford/National Geographic

"In truth, ‘Wilderness' is a state of mind and heart" is how photographer Ansel Adams once put it. "Very little exists now in actuality."

Today even the most remote wilderness areas, like the Bering Sea Wilderness off Alaska or the Innoko Wilderness in the state's interior, are being dramatically altered by the grand geophysical experiment that humans are conducting. Sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is thawing, and woody plants are invading the tundra, all thanks to global warming. The impossibility of escaping human influence, even in those few parts of the globe that people have never inhabited, has led some scientists to propose that we are living in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene.

In the age of man the Wilderness Act may seem futile-but it has arguably become more important. Designating land as wilderness represents an act of humility. It acknowledges that the world still transcends our comprehension, and its value, the use we can make of it."

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