Half a century ago, I was 8 years old, but fortunately, some smart and passionate folks were thinking about my future. And yours. They decided that “wild life” is more than individual plants and animals. Places should be set aside and allowed to stay wild and undisturbed by man.

Their work and passion culminated in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and established a formal mechanism for designating future wilderness. President Johnson stated, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

This year and in this issue of Refuge Update, we are celebrating the act’s 50th anniversary, and with less than 3 percent of the contiguous United States still considered wild, we have a lot of work to do. As human population grows, and humanity consumes more and more to meet its growing needs, wild will become increasingly rare.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit many of our wildest places. One of them is not where you’d expect. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA, is a wilderness that exists amid a crush of humanity. Have you ever tried to cross the Bourne Bridge onto Cape Cod on a summer weekend? The refuge includes the Monomoy Wilderness. When Congress created the Monomoy Wilderness in 1970, Monomoy was not the kind of pristine wilderness many imagine when they read the Wilderness Act—places where “the imprint of man’s work [is] substantially unnoticeable.” People had left their mark (structures, foundations, roads and more) on the Monomoy Wilderness; some are still evident today.

But it is worth the effort to reach the pristine, which is what refuge manager Dave Brownlie and the National Wildlife Refuge System are doing. Essentially, they are re–wilding this dynamic coastal barrier system and its biodiversity of birds, marine wildlife and coastal habitats.

As important as wilderness areas are to wildlife, they are also essential to us—to clear our heads, to experience what it means to be really outdoors, and to connect with the earth and our natural heritage.

They preserve what Brownlie calls the “Monomoy magic,” the feeling he gets when he visits Monomoy’s southernmost tip. There, amid the wildlife, he says: “Yeah, I’m really in a wilderness now.” You can almost hear the tension fade from his voice as he says it, too.

Photo of The wilderness at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge
The wilderness at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge encompasses almost 2.3 million acres in Alaska. Ninety percent of Refuge System wilderness is located in that state. (Steve Hillebrand)

To ensure that wilderness is not lost to short–term gain or for the latest tourist trap, it’s up to us to convey the value of wilderness—not to the nation in the abstract, but concretely to each and every one of us.

Only then, when everyone can, and does, fully appreciate wilderness, will we be confident that the wild lands and “wild life” we love will be there for our children and grandchildren. So, like those pioneers of wilderness protection, who acted for you and me 50 years ago, you and I now have our date with destiny. We are leading today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and today’s conservation community. So let’s get out there and make our own version of the Monomoy magic.