Issue 4, Winter 2003-04

Wilderness 101: The Nuts and Bolts of Conservation

What is Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System to allow Congress to designate certain public lands as wilderness areas "for preservation and protection in their natural condition." And so

The Tumacacori Highlands are one of the last
roadless, truly wild corners of Arizona.
Photo: Sky Island Alliance.

that these lands "shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness..." Wilderness is the highest level of protection for federal public land available in the United States. There are 643 congressionally designated wilderness areas in the United States today. A little more than 4% of the continental United States is protected as Wilderness.

What is a Wilderness Study Area?

A Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is designated to allow an area to be studied and considered by Congress for possible designation as wilderness. WSAs are to be managed in a manner so as not to impair their suitability—or their “untrammeled” nature—for preservation as wilderness. WSAs may eventually gain true wilderness status, or they may eventually be denied wilderness protection.

How is Wilderness established?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness
Act of 1964. Photo courtesy of the National Park
Service Archives, Harper's Ferry.

Wilderness is designated from America's public lands -- land already set aside as national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It is created by specific acts of Congress designating particular areas as wilderness. Today, there are more than 105 million acres of wilderness protected in national forests, wildlife refuges, parks, and BLM lands. Nearly two-thirds of this designated wilderness is in Alaska.

How "natural" must the land be to qualify as Wilderness?

Canyon de Chelly.An area is considered to be natural if the imprints of human intrusion are "substantially unnoticeable". The Wilderness Act specifically permits trails, bridges, fire towers, pit toilets, fire rings, fish habitat enhancement facilities, fencing, and research monitoring devices. Other human impacts are permitted in wilderness areas, so long as their overall impact is substantially unnoticeable.

What activities are allowed in a wilderness area?

Non-motorized recreation including horseback riding, herb gathering, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting are allowed. Agencies may maintain and construct trails in wilderness. The use of wheelchairs, including motorized handicapped equipment, is permitted in wilderness areas when the wheelchair is a medical necessity. Grazing is allowed to continue at levels consistent with sound resource management if it existed prior to the designation of the area as a wilderness.

What activities are not allowed in wilderness?

The Wilderness Act prohibits such activities as mining, chaining, water development, and timber harvest (although mining may occur where there is a valid pre-existing right to mine). The Wilderness Act also prohibits use of motorized vehicles in wilderness except under emergency circumstances. This means that chain saws, trucks, cars, bulldozers, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and other motorized equipment cannot be used within wilderness areas. Mountain bikes are not permitted in wilderness areas.

What's the difference between a wilderness and a national park?

Wilderness areas are defined as roadless areas on public lands that have been designated by Congress to be preserved in a primitive condition. Parts of many national parks are also preserved in a highly natural condition in which roads, mechanical devices, and permanent structures are not allowed. While national parks can also include developed, roaded areas—wilderness areas do NOT. With few exceptions, grazing and hunting are not allowed in parks, whereas they are allowed in wilderness areas.

Why not use some other form of protection for wilderness?

A wilderness area is protected by law (the 1964 Wilderness Act) and the status can only be changed by an act of Congress. Congress has carefully defined wilderness, established a uniform national system of wilderness, and given clear guidance as to how wilderness must be managed. Other designations such as primitive areas give temporary protection but the protection can be modified or removed by the signature of an appointed administrative official. Other categories, such as conservation areas and recreation areas lack the statutory foundation of the Wilderness Act to guide their permanence and integrity.

What about private and state land and mining leases in proposed wilderness areas?

Extractive uses that existed before wilderness designation, including valid mining claims and oil leases, are allowed to continue until either they expire, are purchased by the government, or are abandoned by the owner. Existing dams, developed springs, pipelines, and other water projects are allowed indefinitely. Reasonable access to state lands and private property, by such means as motorized vehicles, is allowed within wilderness, but the land management agency generally attempts to acquire these inholdings on a willing-seller basis.