What is Wilderness?

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What is Wilderness?

Wilderness is that rare, wild place where one can retreat from civilization, reconnect with the earth, and find healing, meaning and significance. Wilderness shaped the growth of our nation and the character of our people.

Wilderness is a uniquely American idea, a part of our heritage we will pass on to our children. Firmly attached to our past, the legacy that is wilderness today remains indispensable to our future.

Why do we have designated Wilderness areas?

Several tribes, like the Niitsitapi (Blackfeet), Sélish (Salish), Qíispé (Pend d’Oreille), Ktunaxa (Kootenai), Ka'igwu (Kiowa), Apsaalooke (Crow), and Lakota (Sioux) occupied what is now Montana. These same untamed wildlands inspired explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the early 1800s. But now, after just 200 years, most of the essential wildness has disappeared.

As Americans realized that the long-term health and welfare of the nation were at risk, a vision for conservation emerged. In 1964, our nation's leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and the fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly unanimous vote, congress enacted landmark legislation to permanently protect some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System "to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

How does the 1964 Wilderness Act define "wilderness?"

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

What is the National Wilderness Preservation System?

The National Wilderness Preservation System includes more than 700 areas in 44 states, totaling more than 107 million acres. More than half of these areas are within a day's drive of America's largest cities, including Seattle, Chicago, and New York City.

State or federal land management agencies, organized groups, or even individuals recommend areas to become wilderness. Congress must enact wilderness legislation, and then the president of the United States signs it into law.

Why are some wildlands not designated as wilderness?

It takes an act of congress to designate wilderness, and legislative bodies take into account the public's opinion as well as the research into the suitability of areas becoming wilderness. The process can take years or even decades. Some wildlands are determined not to fit the criteria and are protected instead as national parks, forests, monuments, seashores, recreation areas, conservation areas, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and scenic and historic trails.

What are common misconceptions about wilderness?

There are three common misconceptions: that wilderness is a "lock-up" of land that keeps people out, that hiking by foot is the only allowable means of travel, and that wilderness prohibits many popular types of recreation. In fact, the Wilderness Act ensures that wilderness is for the "use and enjoyment of the American people," which is why 16 – 25 million Americans take trips to wilderness to hike, backpack, canoe, mountain climb, ski, swim, fish, hunt, and ride horses. In short, most types of outdoor recreation are allowed in wilderness, except those needing mechanical transport or motorized equipment, with the exception of wheelchairs.

How does wilderness differ from wildlands?

Most public land is not wilderness. “Wilderness” refers to federal lands designated by congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, or the National Park Service.

Only 4.82 percent of the entire United States is designated Wilderness, with nearly half of that in Alaska. Even so, there are wilderness areas in all but six states, protecting lands from snowcapped peaks to low-lying desert and marshland. Some indiegenous tribes have their own protected lands, such as Montana's Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, that are not designated under the Wilderness Act.

If it’s already protected, what are the threats?

Wilderness designation does not ensure sanctuary from political, social, economic or environmental events that threaten the ecological and ecosystem-wide integrity of these areas.

Huge expanses of wilderness have experienced profound and devastating changes because of the past century of fire suppression. Meanwhile, non-native, invasive species of plants and animals are displacing and destroying native species in wildernesses across the country. Heavy and highly concentrated recreational use of sensitive areas has disrupted the natural systems on which sensitive plants and animals rely.

Demographic shifts and increasing metropolitan population densities contribute to a growing disconnect between people and wilderness. Many people have a poor understanding of what a wilderness area is, how it shapes and influences our unique national character, and the ecosystem services that wilderness areas provide the public – whether or not we ever visit a wilderness.

How did it all start?

Howard Zahniser introduced the first version of the Wilderness Act in 1956. Sixty-five rewrites, eighteen public appearances and eight years later the bill finally passed — with a near unanimous vote — just a few months after his death. Zahniser was the son of a Free Methodist minister. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, and eventually the U.S. Department of Agriculture, using his college education in humanities and experience as a teacher and newspaper reporter to pen press releases, speeches, and radio scripts. During his work as a federal employee, he also contributed articles and essays to scholarly and scientific journals relating to the conservation/environmental movement. Many of his ideas about ecosystems and wilderness were influenced by the progenitors of the fledgling conservation and environmental movements of the 1930s. Among those influential individuals was Olaus Johan Murie, who helped form the Wilderness Society in 1936 and would become director of that organization around the same time Zahniser became the executive secretary in 1945.

Even earlier, three men – Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhart and Bob Marshall – had successfully obtained administratively designated wilderness protection for several areas across the country, beginning in 1924 with the Gila Wilderness in the Gila National Forest. While a series of policy decisions had made designating wilderness relatively easy, a nationwide standard of management was lacking. Zahniser was the primary leader in the movement to have congress designate Wilderness areas. His efforts at conservation, including his successful fight against the construction of Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument, helped garner support and gain momentum toward passage of the Wilderness Act.

Zahniser died on May 5, 1964, age 58, but his widow, Alice, and Margaret “Mardy” Murie stood at President Lyndon B. Johnson's side when he signed the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964. The Act designated 9.1 million acres of wilderness in the new National Wilderness Preservation System, most coming from national forests. Because of his relentless efforts, Zahniser is known as the "Father of the Wilderness Act."

What is the value of wilderness to Americans today?

Wilderness has measureable economic and ecological value. The natural ecosystem provides fresh, pure water, and cleans the air we breathe. Wilderness also nourishes us with aesthetic beauty and recreation opportunities that lead to strong physical and social health.


Montana Scenic Loop, Wilderness (n.d.), http://www.montanascenicloop.com/see_and_do/wilderness/index.php.

Wilderness.net, What is Wilderness? (n.d.), http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=WhatIsWilderness.

United States Forest Service, Wilderness (11/1/2007), http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/cda/wilderness.shtml.