President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law 50 years ago today, with no North Georgia lands included in the bill.
That has changed over time, with Congress designating 117,000 acres in the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Today, officials estimate some 300,000 people annually visit the forests’ 10 wilderness areas, recreation program manager John Campbell said.
And to mark the anniversary and its contribution to America’s scenic vistas, the local Forest Service is planning “Inspiring Stewardship” on Saturday at Hancock Park near downtown Dahlonega. The event will feature activities and speakers, including Dale Bosworth, who served as U.S. Forest Service chief from 2001 to 2007.
The 1964 Wilderness Act sets out areas “where the earth and its communities of life are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who do not remain,’ states a Forest Service news release.
It “provides us all with an opportunity to celebrate the importance of its continued preservation for future generations,” said Betty Jewett, forest supervisor of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. “Wilderness benefits everyone, whether you visit (one) or simply appreciate the continued existence of areas where the earth and its community of life are not controlled by humans.
“Among many benefits, wilderness ... provides clean water and air, habitat for animals, and healthy landscapes for rare and endangered species to thrive,” Jewett said. “Protecting these special places requires active stewardship and responsible use. Wilderness is everyone’s to share and enjoy.”
Georgia has all or portions of 14 wilderness areas, with 10 of them in the Chattahoochee National Forest. The mountainous Chattahoochee forest is much larger than the Oconee National Forest and includes such area counties as White, Habersham and Banks.
Campbell said counting the number of visitors to wilderness areas is “a difficult thing because (they represent) more of our remote use.”
“Every five years, the Forest Service conducts what it calls national visitor use monitoring,” he said. “We’re going through it again this year, so we’ll have some new numbers and hopefully show some trends of moving forward.”
But while officials hope to see high use of wilderness areas, which are accessible only by hiking trails, they don’t want them overrun, either.
“It’s a tough balancing act,” Campbell said. “We have some very popular areas, but we hope people practice ‘leave no trace’ and help be good stewards of the land.”
“Leave no trace” is the practice of visitors leaving wilderness areas as pristine as they found them.
More wilderness could be added to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests but not huge plots.
“They are primarily cleaning up of some boundary issues,” Campbell said.
Otherwise, “new areas can always be designated, but they’re usually done by the advocacy side — outside groups working with Congress,” he added. “The Forest Service does not promote those.”
Larry Winslett, a Dahlonega resident and member of the Georgia Sierra Club, said his group is pushing for 8,500 acres around several borders to be designated wilderness.
“They’re all small areas that border adjacent wilderness,” he said.