The Allegheny forest of Northwestern Pennsylvania was once a sight to be seen. Brimming with acres upon acres of Eastern hemlock, American beech, sugar maple, chestnut, and other distinct trees, this old-growth forest was home to wolves and cougars, which kept the deer population at naturally regulated low levels. This, in turn, allowed the understory vegetation to remain dense and richly diverse beneath the multi-layered canopy. It was a picture of God’s intricate design, a perfect ecosystem full of checks, balances, and beauty.
And then people came in.
Beginning in the early 19th century, European settlers entered the land and began clearing trees away to create homesteads–land for farming and timber for houses. Soon, recognizing the wealth to be had in the plentiful hardwoods, saw mills began to sprout up. As America grew, so did the demand for wood–everything from houses to furniture, paper to planks called for wood to sustain the appetite of the country’s industry.
And the Allegheny forest was a goldmine.
By the late 19th century, the land had been cleared almost to eradication. Gone were the white oak, red maple, and other trees. Gone, too, were the deer (a result of overhunting) and with them, the predators and other animals who depended on the land for survival. The bare soil and logging slash made floods and wildfires a constant danger. Many settlers and entrepreneurs abandoned the land. Those who remained now sadly referred to the area as the “Allegheny Brush Patch.”
But in 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which authorized the US Secretary of Agriculture to “examine, locate and recommend for purchase … such lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as … may be necessary to the regulation of flow of navigable streams….” This meant that the federal government would be able to purchase private land if the purchase was deemed necessary to protect rivers’ and watersheds’ headwaters in the eastern United States. Furthermore, the law allowed for land acquired through this act to be preserved and maintained as national forest territory.
In 1923, under this new act, the Allegheny forest became the Allegheny National Forest, a land now protected by the federal government.
But was it too late?
Much to the amazement of many locals who believed the land too far gone to be safe, the Allegheny National Forest thrived under the supervision and conservation under the Forest Service. With the right care, right management, and right attitude, areas of the country could be safe-guarded from over- and ill-use.
It was a lesson one local man never forgot.
Howard Zahniser was born February 25, 1906 in Franklin, Pennsylvania. He spent much of his formative years in nearby Tidioute, wandering through the Allegheny forest and developing a deep, life-altering love for nature. He witnessed both the destruction and rebound of this beloved land before leaving to pursue a degree in humanities at Greenville College in Illinois as well as a master’s degree from George Washington University. After school, he worked as both a teacher and a newspaper reporter, but neither career satisfied the inner outdoorsman that dwelled within his heart.
He soon left those jobs, signing on with the United States Bureau of Biological Survey and, later, the United States Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. Never forgetting what he had seen and experienced in the Allegheny National Forest, Zahniser used his work to begin seriously studying conservation efforts and environmentalism movement. He wrote articles for essays and journals stressing the importance of these ideas and pushed for the government to do more to protect the land.
In 1945, he left his job with the federal government to become the executive secretary of The Wilderness Society, a newly formed non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of natural areas. Their goal was to create a system of wilderness areas, which would be both protected and utilized for public benefit. In 1956, Zahniser first attempted to write what would eventually become known as the Wilderness Act. In it, he wrote:
“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify, all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness; and no Federal lands shall be designated as “wilderness areas” except as provided for in this Act or by a subsequent Act.“
He went on to create the first legal definition of wilderness, saying:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.”
After eight years and 66 re-writes, the act was formally signed into law on September 3, 1964 and became officially known as “The Wilderness Act of 1964.” 9.1 million acres of land were now protected and preserved, thanks to the efforts of Zahniser and others within the Wilderness Society.
Sadly, however, Zahniser didn’t live to see his hard work come to fruition; he died on May 8, 1964, just months before President Lyndon Johnson signed his act into the law. But since that day, more areas have been added to the designation and today, over 109.5 million acres are protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. There are more than 750 wilderness areas from Alaska to Florida that provide habitats for endangered and threatened species; protect watershed and provide safe drinking water; as well as filter and clean the air we breathe.
Most of all, though, these wilderness areas provide a place for millions of Americans to retreat from the modern world and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.
All thanks to one man’s passions and the lessons he learned in the forests of northwestern Pennsylvania.