This is the first of two columns on wilderness to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
The bipartisan bill that President Johnson signed into law in 1964 took eight years and over 66 revisions before Congress passed it for the president to sign into law.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of that landmark legislation of courage and compromise known as the Wilderness Act. A number of activities are being planned in the White River National Forest to celebrate its passage.
As for me, the best way I have celebrated wilderness has been to take each of my daughters on hikes into wilderness areas and wild country when they were young.
When my oldest daughter, Duana, was 6 years old, she went with me on a weeklong backpacking trip along the entire 62-mile Apache Kid Trail in the San Mateo Mountains of southern New Mexico. When we arrived at the Springtime Campground, Duana asked my friend who had come to be pick us up if she wanted to go for a hike. She hadn’t merely survived in the wilderness, she had thrived in the great outdoors.
On another wilderness trip, Duana and I watched with binoculars from a safe distance an eagle fledgling mostly white with downy feathers perched high in a tall Ponderosa Pine.
Shandra was 6 years old when she went on her first wilderness hike in the Flat Top Wilderness accompanied by me and her older sister Duana. The fact that Dad forgot silverware to eat with didn’t dampen Shandra’s spirits. We just whittled spoons out of dead wood. Now that she is grown up, she still enjoys hiking and camping.
My next-to-the-oldest daughter, DeAnza, has not been so enthusiastic about camping with Dad after our first wilderness experience. We had hiked into the northern end of the Black Range of mountains in the Cibola National Forest of New Mexico when she was 7. After a few days, we were counting on the usual flowing springs for our water supply, but to my chagrin they were all dry.
That meant I had to leave DeAnza at camp and take a long hike down to the bottom of a deep canyon to fill our canteens. When I returned, she was not a happy camper.
Youngest daughter Amber enjoyed our time in the Flat Tops Wilderness when I took her with me on the Ute Trail Trip. Our base camp was at the Marvine Campground. What she didn’t enjoy was the stinging nettle she got into on her hike along Marvine Creek Trail into the wilderness. Friends from the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers who were with us applied a remedy that worked, and in no time she was back tramping through the woods.
My own wilderness experiences started in the Pecos Wilderness of Northern New Mexico when I was a teenager. A picture still survives that my camping companion took of me standing tall and proud leaning on a trail sign at the end of our long hike.
The best wilderness experience I have had was my solo hike across the entire Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. Friends knew my itinerary and one friend met me at my halfway point so we could soak in the Gila Hot Springs.
Firefighting has carried me into many of the West’s wilderness areas, where we managed some of the fires and some of the fires managed us as they came roaring out of the wilds on their own terms.
So wilderness has played a large role in my life and my family’s outdoor experiences.
Wilderness means different things to different people. But it’s there because of the foresight of a handful of conservationists, a bipartisan Congress and the pen of a willing president.
Bill Kight is the public affairs officer for the White River National Forest and has 35 years of experience in federal land management agencies.