Litigation can be a catalyst for legislation. Legislative history can reveal just how influential litigation is. The legislative history of the laws to designate wilderness in the 1980s provides an object lesson. It demonstrates that litigation both pushed Congress to act and shaped the legislation Congress enacted. This is especially true of the watershed year of 1984. That year, Congress enacted more wilderness laws and added more wilderness areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System in more states than in any other year. The legislative history of the 1984 wilderness laws embedded in bills, hearings, committee meetings, committee reports, and floor proceedings, in conjunction with the legislative history of the various wilderness bills and laws considered, rejected, and passed from 1979 through 1983, reveal the significant impact a particular lawsuit had on Congress in 1984 and beyond. Specifically, a lawsuit grounded in the National Environmental Policy Act, taking advantage of a powerful precedent, prompted the preservation of the wilderness character of millions of acres of public land. To be precise: The lawsuit impelled Congress to designate more than 9.171 million acres in twenty-three states as wilderness from 1984 through 1989. Of that number, more than 7.335 million acres are managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Forest Service; more than 1.835 million acres are managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. This article uses legislative history to demonstrate how a strategic lawsuit sparked congressional action. It traces the litigation engendered by the Forest Service’s decision regarding roadless areas in national forests and the evolution of Congress’s response to that litigation, from the first lawsuit filed in 1979 to the last filed in 1983. In the process, it shows how legislative history can illuminate the underlying causes and policy choices that lead to legislation.

Note: This article was updated in April of 2023 to include additional wilderness laws passed in the wake of the RARE II controversy and the corresponding amounts of Forest Service lands protected. Accordingly, this article has been altered from the original and does not match the print version.