In 1964, as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, he declared it to be among "the most far-reaching conservation measures that a far-sighted nation has ever coped with."
Now, as the Wilderness Act turns 50 on Sept. 3, Florida Bay and the Everglades have become two of its largest beneficiaries.
In 1978, Congress created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness within Everglades National Park. The move accomplished the dual purpose of honoring Douglas, the iconic champion of Everglades preservation, and providing the United States' strongest environmentally protected status to 1.3 million acres of the park, including the submerged seagrass and mudflats of the Florida Bay bottom. Habitats of sawgrass, mangroves, cypress, pines and hammock are all protected under the Wilderness Act.
In fact, South Florida's wilderness area encompasses 86 percent of Everglades National Park and is the largest such area east of the Rockies.
As the 1964 Wilderness Act elegantly states, wilderness is "recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor."
The designation, though, goes well beyond symbolic. The wilderness areas of the Everglades, as well the other 108 million acres of federally protected wilderness in the United States, enjoy important protections from man-made changes that even other areas within the national park system do not. Those areas, proponents say, provide individuals with opportunities for solitude, adventure and for viewing wildlife in its natural, unfettered environment.
With only minimal exceptions -- for example, sign posts affixed to the Florida Bay bottom -- it takes an act of Congress to alter wilderness areas. That means park administators can't build amenities such as boardwalks or roadways in designated wilderness. And they can't open those areas to environmentally unfriendly activities, such as airboat use.
But benefits, especially within an imperiled ecosystem like the Everglades, go beyond the recreational, said John Adornato, who heads the South Florida office of the National Parks Conservation Association. He noted that the vast marshes of Everglades National Park are areas where water is naturally cleansed before seeping back into the aquifers that are the source of the region's freshwater supply.
"Wilderness in the Everglades provides for an amazing repository of resources and wildlife that could be diminished if it were managed in a different way," Adornato said.
The Everglades National Park wilderness also functions as "an important line of defense against the devastating winds of tropical storms, and an indispensable nursery ground for marine species of recreational and commercial importance," a National Park Service primer says.
But as the Wilderness Act turns 50, some people are questioning whether it should be updated for modern times.
In an op-ed in The New York Times last month, environmental journalist Christopher Solomon argued that more active management could well be desirable in at least some wilderness areas in order to forestall the transformative effects of climate change.
Notably, he wrote, the very underpinning of the Wilderness Act, the notion that nature exists "in some unadulterated state apart from humans," is largely outdated. Scientists have become acutely aware over the past five decades that man has been shaping ecosystems for thousands of years and that the natural world is in a constant state of transformation.
The Everglades is particularly susceptible to the impacts of global warming. Recent studies have shown that mangroves are expanding their territory in low-lying coastal regions as rising seawater diminishes the abundance of less salt-tolerant plants.
In an interview last week, Greg Aplet, senior science director for Washington, D.C.-based The Wilderness Society, said his organization doesn't dispute that actively managing a variety of natural systems is an approach that must be considered in the face of climate change.
But he argued that the more than 80 percent of federal public land that is not designated as wilderness is where such strategies should be employed. Wilderness areas, he said, should be left to their own devices.
"Our position is that we need more wilderness because we need more areas where we can apply the strategy of keeping hands off and letting nature decide what will be," Aplet said.
Adornato said there's room for debate about how humans can best attempt to preserve wild areas in the face of climate change. But he praised the Everglades' wilderness designation on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
"It's the highest level of protection that any federal lands can be granted," he said. "That's worth something. In fact, it's worth quite a lot."