Anyone who’s walked along a quiet Bay shore or felt miles away from others while on a deep forest hike or long river kayak paddle knows the subtle thrill of feeling far from civilization. These tiny glimpses of wilderness in the Bay region may be rare and fleeting, but for the hiker or kayaker, they’re treasured moments.
We mid-Atlantic dwellers have few true wilderness areas to explore. There are 16 wildernesses in Virginia, with the largest being 80,000 acres of Shenandoah Wilderness, and nearly 9,000 acres in two Pennsylvania wildernesses. But these are fragmented drops in the bucket compared to the mind-boggling, million-acre wilderness expanses of the Plains and the West.
This September marks the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964 and set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of wild lands.
The act’s writers defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness retains its “all natural” character, with no permanent improvements, development or human habitation.
Currently, our nation preserves around 109 million acres of federally designated wilderness. These federally protected lands range from the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in southeastern Alaska, with more than 9 million acres of untouched land, to Pelican Island Wilderness in northern Florida, which spans a mere 5.5 acres.
Though it takes an act of Congress to officially designate federal wilderness, those who explore the Chesapeake region often find their own pockets of wilderness — and the profound sense of quiet aloneness — along rivers, streams, forests and Bay waters.
The states are moving to protect their own versions of wild lands — largely natural swaths of landscape that feel wild and free, even if they haven’t earned federal recognition.
In Maryland, one of six states that doesn’t have a federally designated wilderness, the Maryland General Assembly recently added nearly 22,000 acres of state lands that have wilderness-like character, bringing the state total to nearly 66,000 acres. Within these acres, motorized vehicles are banned, and only low-impact activities such as birdwatching, hiking, fishing and hunting are permitted.
Pennsylvania, too, has its own state park natural areas set aside for special protections, in addition to the two federal wildernesses west of the Chesapeake watershed.
These natural areas set aside by states — often smaller than federal wildernesses — offer a taste of wilderness, an escape from development and human imprint. And they provide acres of natural land, valuable swaths of habitat for fauna and flora, as well as opportunities for ecosystems to thrive.
Many argue that even more land should be set aside and — and that we ought to preserve it sooner rather than later.
Protecting lands is no easy feat. Although President Obama called for additional land conservation in his Executive Order for the Chesapeake region — saying that 2 million additional undeveloped acres are considered high conservation priorities — so far, federal dollars haven’t backed his good intent.
State budgets are stretched thin, too. In Maryland, Program Open Space funds, designated to acquire outdoor recreation and open space areas, have been routinely diverted to other projects and priorities. Since the program started in 1969, officials have siphoned off around $1 billion for other projects.
Lands that don’t have designated "wild" protections — local or regional parks, for example — still deserve our action and protection. At the least, we can support good stewardship practices on any public land, such as volunteering for habitat restoration projects, picking up litter and following park or recreation area rules.
In addition, many efforts around the Bay region focus on private land conservation and easements, and those are important. But so are public wild lands, where anyone can enjoy the unique quiet and solitude of forests, rivers and the Bay. We can and should advocate for more wild or natural land protection for areas vulnerable to human intrusion and development. As with many issues, communicating with our government representatives becomes an important step in making a change.
With 17 million people living the Chesapeake Bay watershed — a population that’s ever-growing, with ever-increasing development — it’s more important than ever to set aside wild lands where future generations can find a slice of wilderness right here at home.