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Land lovers go wild for monumental act's 50th anniversary

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964. Known for using any excuse to whoop it up, conservationists far and wide have set aside this entire month to celebrate the act’s 50 years. Jose Witt, Southern Nevada manager of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, talks about festivities happening in our neck of the woods, what wilderness means to the average citizen and how the state rates in protecting its wild places.

What is Friends of Nevada Wilderness doing to commemorate the 50-year anniversary?

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Earlier this year, we got a grant from the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, and we’ve used that to install a kiosk at the Mud Springs Trail at Mount Charleston celebrating the anniversary. This past weekend, we had 40 volunteers doing some trail work on the Mount Charleston National Recreation Trail, and then we had a picnic where Smokey Bear cut the cake, and there was a talk about the Wilderness Act. We’ll continue to do other stewardship projects, and we have the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in November, which includes films about the act.

The act defines wilderness as areas that are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who don’t remain. How is that different from other federal designations, such as National Parks?

Wilderness is meant to be untrammeled. It’s not necessarily pristine, but there are limited structures, limited commercialization. It’s primitive; it allows the user to experience nature as our ancestors would have. There aren’t big trail heads with big signs. You’ll get a lot more solitude than you would in other types of places.

The act sets aside land for the “use and enjoyment” of the American people. What does this mean in practical terms? Give examples of what you can and can’t do there?

There are no motor vehicles allowed. Most areas have cherry stem roads to allow for public access, because they are there for people’s enjoyment, recreation and scientific study. You can backpack, fish, hunt, take in pack-stock, fight fires. Grazing and mining are allowed on some claims. Forbidden are motorized juice (chainsaws, motor drills) and mechanical transport (ATVs, bicycles). Hang-gliders can’t land there, only fly over. It’s kind of frozen in time. Think early 1900s, before the Industrial Revolution.

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There are 757 wilderness areas total in the U.S. How many of those are in Nevada?

We have 64. The last bill to pass was for Lincoln County in 2006, but there are some areas that are out of committee. A lot of the bills nowadays have to do with declaring it wilderness if it allows mining. It’s not what a lot of conservationists want, but in order to protect the land, there have to be concessions on both sides.

In the last 50 years, has Nevada made progress in protecting its wilderness, fallen behind or maintained the status quo?

We have greatly advanced. We had some land designated in ’64, then in 1989 we got Mount Charleston, then in 2002, we got 17 other designations in Clark County and some additional acreage on Mount Charleston.

What would you like to see happen next, as far as our wilderness areas go? Any new designations on tap?

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I’d love users to develop more of a land ethic. I think a lot of people love hiking and rock climbing, but they don’t have the deep passion to enjoy the wilderness. They need a challenge: climb that peak. I’d love to see them just open themselves up more to the experience. I’d also love to see more designations — Gold Butte is a great example. It’s so beautiful; I’m surprised it’s not a national park.


Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.