On Sept. 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law protecting more than 9 million acres of land. The existing system now includes more than 750 areas covering about 5 percent of the United States.
In the September issue of National Geographic magazine, Michael Melford photographed current and proposed National Wilderness areas.
Above, 40 years before the Wilderness Act, 755,000 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, including the Middle Fork of the Gila River, became the world’s first designated wilderness.
Snow clings to aspens near Taos, New Mexico, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A proposal to protect 45,000 acres here in the Carson National Forest is one of some 30 wilderness bills before Congress.
Day breaks on the Front Range in Montana. The mountains and plains in this region shelter a rich collection of plants and wildlife, including grizzly bears.
Patos Island, Washington, is part of a thousand-acre national monument created last year by President Barack Obama. Wilderness, a higher form of land protection, covers 350 acres of the San Juans -- but only Congress can designate a wilderness.
Soaptree yuccas soak up morning light in southern New Mexico. “I am not finished,” the president said in May, as he created this newest national monument. “I’m searching for more opportunities.”