"Whoever owns the land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying . . . "

-- Aldo Leopold, U.S. naturalist-conservationist

The bill was first introduced in Congress in 1956. During the next eight years, it was modified, rewritten or resubmitted 66 times. Eighteen public hearings were held. Sixteen thousand pages of testimony were taken.

By the time the Wilderness Act was finally signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, in September 1964, it had provoked more florid oratory and fiery political debate than any other conservation measure in U.S. history.

And never was a piece of legislation so worthy of the effort.

During the last 20 years, 88.5 million acres of America's wildest, most beautiful land, "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . where man himself is a visitor and does not remain" have been protected from development by the act. Perhaps as important as that total acreage was the public participation needed to pass the act and implement it effectively.

In a very real sense, the Wilderness Act marked the beginning of the modern, broad-based conservation movement. Until the effort to pass it began, conservation was the province of a few men and women with vision and a handful of small, energetic organizations.

"The Wilderness Act was a rallying point for the conservation movement . . . it got democracy involved," said John C. Hendee, an official with the U.S. Forest Service and one of a dozen public and private conservation leaders who gathered in Washington last week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the act's signing.

With Hendee were officials representing the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Each took a turn praising the passage of the act, then warned there was more work to be done.

"Not a week passes without a request for some exception to the regulations," said Max Peterson, chief of the Forest Service, which oversees more than 32 million acres of land covered by the act. That land is protected by legislation from any kind of human interference, including the building of roads and buildings or the cutting of timber.

But that protection is constantly threatened, said Peterson. This week, for example, the Forest Service is considering a request from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct studies on acid rain in lands within the Wilderness System.

"The exceptions look very small," Peterson said at the conference at the National Parks and Conservation Association building here. "But what happens after 20 years or so of granting so many small exceptions?"

The idea for the Wilderness Act arose in the early 1950s when a group of conservationists led by Howard Zahniser, executive director of the Wilderness Society, joined forces to defeat an Interior Department plan to dam the Green River in Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument.

The success of that fight led Zahniser to draft a plan for a national wilderness system. Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and John P. Saylor in the House introduced bills to create such a system in 1956. Each year that the bill failed to pass, its proponents sought a wider circle of supporters to apply political pressure on congress. When Colorado's Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the House Interior Committee, refused to schedule hearings on the bill, conservationists went to Aspinall's home district to lobby his constituents.

"I was thrown off one ranch. Another rancher fingered his pistol and said, 'There's about to be a shooting,' " remembered Michael McCloskey, now executive director of the Sierra Club. "Aspinall complained about outside agitators. But the next spring, hearings were held."

By 1964, when the act was finally passed, conservationists had developed a loose-knit but national organization. Ironically, a provision of the act that they opposed led to an even broader, stronger coalition that today is as powerful as any lobbying group in the country.

Conservationists had wanted to give federal agencies alone the power to include new lands in the Wilderness System. But congress voted to give itself that power. As a result, the idea of wilderness had to be sold to the general public.

"The act dealt the people in . . . It is only through public participation that we have gained wilderness protection for millions of acres during the past 20 years," wrote Michael Frome in an issue of the National Parks magazine this year celebrating the anniversary of the act's signing.

Frome, an author and professor at the University of Idaho, is a gadfly of the conservation movement. He criticized every government agency represented at last week's conference for not doing enough to implement the act and reminded everyone that both the National Parks and the Forest Service opposed its passage.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the folks in the agencies that care are not the ones who make the decisions," Frome said. "We have still to achieve the promised land. But its pursuit is uplifting."