Reflections of Nature

On the anniversary of the National Scenic Trails Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

By Phil Hough
Reader Staff

We launched our canoe into strong head winds and waves. Forward progress was slow, so we camped early, on a muddy shore only five miles from the start. Smoke from our warming campfire rose gently as a thick stand of trees broke the breeze. Tracks made overnight around our campsite told a story both fresh and ages old. The wonders of wild northern Maine were just beginning to unfold; the car at the put in could have been hundreds of miles away. 

Phil Hough on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont c. 1973. Courtesy photo.

My dad choose the Allagash River for our first wilderness journey. Henry David Thoreau had this place in mind when he foresaw the preservation of the world in wildness. We paddled for 10 days through wild, rugged, scenic country, dining on bullfrogs, trout, freeze-dried food and cans whose contents were a mystery after the labels got wet. The sun burned our faces, blisters and cracks formed on wet, overworked hands and for much of the time we were wet, cold and tired. Black flies, mosquitos and gnats took out their chunks too. But, it was the bug of wilderness adventure, which at age 10, took the biggest bite out of me. My life would never be the same.  

Thanks to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers act, thousands of others have paddled the Allagash — on their own personal journeys, through woods that are still lovely, dark and deep. 

On Oct. 2, 1968, President Johnson signed this remarkable piece of legislation into law! Initially, it protected eight rivers; it also provided tools to add more. To date this legislation has preserved over 700 rivers and streams and 12,000 remarkable miles. 

In my teens, my dad and I took long weekend trips along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire and Vermont. There I met people hiking all the way from Georgia to Maine. National Geographic magazine displayed the marvels and mysteries of the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, each crossing the country from Mexico to Canada. A slow burn began to build. Years later, I quit my job (more than once) and hiked all three.

The National Trails Act was also signed into law by President Johnson on Oct. 2, 1968. It established the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail as our nation’s first two National Scenic Trails and authorized a study of 14 more. Now over a dozen of these iconic trails cross our country, along with dozens of National Historic Trails over 1000 National Recreation Trails!  

On this same day, President Johnson also signed the laws that established the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, the Pasayten Wilderness, modified the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and established the Redwood National Park in California.  

He summed it all up this way: “We have learned — all too slowly, I think — to prize and to protect God’s precious gifts. Because we have, our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them.”

The Wilderness Act or the laws that created the Forest Service or Park Service may be better known, but  the legislative record of this one-day had a tremendous influence on conservation, recreation and access to our public lands.

Remember that the backdrop for this was the year 1968. The Vietnam War raged on, as did protests here at home. The other Johnson war, the one on poverty, was not going much better. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and Bobby Kennedy in June, civil rights protests shifted into riots that burned many of our major cities. Our nation was as torn and divided then as at any time in our history. Somehow congress came together to pass landmark legislation shaping a world of opportunities for baby boomers and every generation to follow. 

On these remarkable trails, wild and scenic rivers and unique landscapes, we can re-create ourselves.  As Americans, we measure who we are, what our lives mean and the vitality of our communities by our connection to natural landscapes.  These are places where we truly exercise our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Without these opportunities, we would not be as free. We would be far more tamed and timid as individuals and as a country.

Future generations deserve access to this same heritage of wild places. Their chance for adventure should be enhanced, not diminished. It is our obligation to ensure Congress protects ample access to wild places.  If our nation could do this, amidst the tumult of 1968, then we can come together now to preserve wild places for our generation and all those generations to come. 

Today, let’s honor the vision that congress and President Johnson provided for us on Oct. 2, 1968. Get outside somewhere and enjoy your freedom to roam around in wild places!

For more information on what Johnson signed (and said) that day:

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