07/07/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Wilderness Forward

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, one of our country's greatest tools for protecting America's wild places. Signed into law on Sept. 3, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside an initial nine million acres of wild lands for the use and enjoyment of the American people. Over the past 50 years, and as a result of America's support for wilderness, Congress has added nearly 100 million more acres to this unique land preservation system -- in 44 out of 50 states and Puerto Rico.

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines "Wilderness" as areas "where the earth and its community of life... appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..."

Today, this original idea of wilderness is as salient as ever. Wild lands and natural systems filter the air we breathe and the water we drink; they generate fertile soils, control pests that destroy crops, provide habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon pollution and control floods. They also contribute to the multibillion dollar outdoor recreation economy and provide important opportunities for people from all backgrounds to connect with nature. In today's busy world, protected wild places provide solace and peace.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune embarks on a family summer road trip this week through wild places in the Pacific Northwest, he'll get to experience some of these scenic wild places first hand -- though with three kids the solace and peace may be harder to find. Thanks to the enduring legacy of the Wilderness Act his family, and countless others, will hike, camp and enjoy spending time together away from it all in our great outdoors -- you can follow along with the trip right here.

There remains an urgent need to safeguard places "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." But as we look to the next 50 years of protecting our wild places the idea of wilderness must also grow and evolve.

Mounting threats, from climate disruption, dirty fuel extraction, and an increasing disconnect between Americans and the outdoors, make it necessary to expand our thinking about protecting special places. In the coming years, our country's leaders must prioritize protecting local parks and nature closer to home, national monuments and new formally designated Wilderness areas. All of these areas play a critical role in the future of America's natural heritage.

My first Wilderness experience was as a Boy Scout in California. Spending four days on a Wilderness backpacking trip in the Klamath Mountains at the age of 13 changed my life forever and put me on a path to be a conservationist. The art of survival during those days in the wild also built a sense of confidence that I could take on seemly insurmountable challenges and prevail.

Wilderness is a living legacy. For it to continue to thrive, it's time to recognize that wild is where you find it. We need to increase opportunities for all Americans to explore the country's wild places, whether on a family road trip like the Brunes or an afternoon picnic at the neighborhood park. Once someone has experienced the power of the great outdoors, near or far, it's hard not to be moved to protect and defend it.