From: the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Published September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

EarthTalk: How Much Land Has Congress Designated as Wilderness Since the Wilderness Act Passed 40 Years Ago?

Dear EarthTalk: How much land has Congress designated as wilderness since passage of the Wilderness Act 40 years ago?

Maureen Langloss, New York, New York

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, it designated 9.1 million acres across the United States permanently off limits to development. Since then, lawmakers have added an additional 96.5 million acres — including more than 50 million acres in Alaska alone — for a total of 105.6 million acres, spread over some 662 different areas and constituting roughly 5 percent of total U.S. land mass.

Only Congress has the power to designate lands as federally protected wilderness. Typically, parcels of land need to be 5,000 acres or larger to be included. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service each oversee different areas of wilderness within their respective holdings.

A group of influential policymakers, scientists, and outdoors people banded together in the mid-1930s, and their advocacy work eventually led to the passage of the Wilderness act 30 years later. Calling themselves the Wilderness Society, they included Benton Mackaye, known as ìfather of the Appalachian Trail; Robert Sterling Yard, a National Park Service publicist at the time; visionary ecologist and author Aldo Leopold; and Robert Marshall, then chief of recreation and lands for the Forest Service. Today the Wilderness Society is thriving, with a quarter-million dues-paying members and wilderness preservation campaigns running from Alaska to Florida.


Despite protections provided by the 1964 law, wilderness areas face many threats today. Excessive human recreational activity takes a toll, as do air and water pollution from sources that originate outside wilderness boundaries. Nonnative plants and animals who have been introduced over time threaten the native species who have evolved over thousands of years.

Wildlife habitat in adjacent buffer zones is shrinking as development moves closer and closer to the boundaries of these wild lands. And ill-advised land management practices — such as widespread fire suppression — disrupt naturally functioning ecological systems.

This year, numerous government agencies and nonprofit organizations are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act and assessing how to best work together to protect wilderness lands in perpetuity. Conferences are exploring the important role wilderness plays in the American psyche, and walks for wilderness are scheduled on weekends this fall from coast-to-coast to raise public awareness about the role wilderness plays in the quality of life and the health of our environment. To find an event near you, check

Dear EarthTalk: How do hybrid cars get better fuel efficiency than traditional cars?

David Walley, Framingham, Massachusetts

Hybrid cars get better gas mileage and pollute less because their highly efficient electric motors run on recycled waste energy generated during normal driving. These cars actually have two engines under the hood: a traditional gasoline-powered motor used for acceleration, and an electric motor that kicks in and out of service when the car is maintaining cruising speeds and when the car is idling or backing up. Excess power generated by the gasoline engine is stored in batteries and used to fuel the electric engine, so owners never need to plug the cars in.

Hybrids have two complex drive trains, so consumers can expect to pay a premium of $3,500 or more for one, depending upon extra options ordered. But as with most new innovations, as demand for hybrids rises (there is a long waiting list for the Toyota Prius) and manufacturers increase production accordingly, prices are likely to come down. And the demand will surely rise as long as gas prices continue to soar.

Despite the price premium, owners can expect to earn back the extra investment of going hybrid within three to five years of ownership through savings at the gas pump — especially if their hybrids are replacing gas-guzzlers like big SUVs.

Hybrid owners who drive the average 12,000 miles per year can expect to save anywhere between $600 and $1,000 each year on gasoline, depending upon their driving patterns. High-mileage commuters will see their savings mount even faster.

Also, the federal government currently offers hybrid owners a tax credit of up to $1,500 for purchasing a clean fuels vehicle, though this incentive is set to expire after 2006. And several U.S. states — including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Utah — offer their own incentives and tax rebates for hybrid owners.

Those ready to take the hybrid plunge have more options than ever at their disposal. The first two hybrids to hit the U.S. market in 2000 were the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, both of which claim fuel efficiencies of up to 60 miles per gallon and are available today in updated forms. In the meantime, Honda has also introduced a hybrid version of its popular Civic model and is soon to introduce a hybrid Accord.

American automakers are slated to release new hybrid SUVs this fall, beginning with Ford's hybrid Escape, which boasts 40 miles per gallon. Lexus is also offering a hybrid SUV, and a full hybrid Saturn Vue is coming. Meanwhile, Chevrolet has a hybrid version of its full-size Silverado pick-up truck for fleet buyers, though it only gets 10 to 12 percent better fuel economy over its standard GM 1500 pickup.

Given all the choices — not to mention the savings at the pump — there's never been a better time to get behind the wheel of a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Got an environmental question? Mail it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at or email us at

Related Links

Wilderness Act of 1964
Bureau of Land Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service
National Park Service
Wilderness Society
Clean Car Campaign
Electric Drive Transportation Association

Source: E/The Environmental Magazine

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