Top 50 Stories: 1964 - Wilderness Act signed

With 4.52 million acres designated as wilderness, Idaho has the third-largest total in the nation

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 16, 2014 

Big Creek airstrip.JPG

Big Creek air strip in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho.

ROGER PHILLIPS — The Idaho Statesman Buy Photo

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When President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, signed legislation creating a national wilderness preservation system for 9.2 million acres of federal forestland in 13 mostly Western states, the news barely caused a ripple in the Idaho Statesman.

Despite Idaho Sen. Frank Church's involvement as the Senate floor sponsor, an Associated Press story announcing the signing totaled four paragraphs. Johnson, who described himself as a lover of "the great American outdoors," said the Wilderness Act would open "another historic era" in conservation of the nation's wildlife and natural resources.

Today, 50 years later, 758 wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico total 109.5 million acres. Only Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland and Rhode Island lack federally designated wilderness.

Idaho, with a dozen wilderness areas totaling 4.52 million acres, ranks third among the 50 states. It contains 4 percent of the overall total.

Alaska, with 57.4 million acres (52 percent of the total), ranks first, followed by California with 14.9 million acres (14 percent).

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho, with 2.4 million acres, is the largest unbroken wilderness in the lower 48 states. It is bordered by the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north and the Gospel-Hump Wilderness to the northwest.

A portion of the area first received protection in 1931, when the U.S. Forest Service designated 1.1 million acres of land in Central Idaho as The Idaho Primitive Area. The River of No Return Wilderness combined that land, the Salmon River Breaks Primitive Area and a portion of the Magruder Corridor.

President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation on July 23, 1980. Two years earlier, Carter and his family accompanied then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus on a three-day float trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The story on the signing was overshadowed in the Statesman. A riot at the old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise dominated the front page of the July 24 issue, and even a story on the death of British actor Peter Sellers commanded more space on the front page.

In January 1984, Congress honored Church by adding his name to the wilderness. The gesture came after Church, a Boise Democrat, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Idaho Sen. Jim McClure, a Payette Republican, introduced the measure in the Senate and the legislation was signed by President Ronald Reagan on March 14, 1984, three weeks before Church died at age 59.

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