What is wilderness?

Wilderness is that land that was—a wildland beyond the frontier, land that shaped the growth of our nation and the character of its people. Wilderness is the land that is—rare, wild places where we can retreat from civilization; reconnect with the Earth; and find healing, meaning, and significance.

People have held various perspectives of wilderness throughout history. During European settlement of America, wilderness was something to be feared. One settler in the early 1600s stated, “Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.” Three centuries later, an American author stated, “[wilderness] is the ultimate source of health—terrestrial and human.”

Today, people still perceive wilderness in many ways. While some people think that wilderness is a forested backyard or a park down the street, Congress defines wilderness as much more than that and designated specific areas across the country to be protected as wilderness.

Interview with Gary Somers - Chief Natural and Cultural Resources, Shenandoah

Well one of the primary purposes of the Wilderness Act was to leave lands as wild as we can and not have human control over those lands, and also to give opportunities for solitude and quiet, and basically put humans in an [innate ?] relationship with nature where nature is the driving force where the humans are the sort of the visitors and the subservient part of this equation, and power equipment, as we all know, has allowed humans to become much more dominant than subservient, and this changes that equation, and so that’s why it’s important that when we are actually justifying their use in wilderness, we have a very good justification.

The Wilderness Act defined

Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which is the guiding piece of legislation for all wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as follows:

Do you know?

Question: Many federal lands in the eastern United States were considered for wilderness designation, yet in the Wilderness Act of 1964 only three Forest Service areas were included. Can you identify which three wilderness areas they are?

Answer: Great Gulf Wilderness in New Hampshire , Linville Gorge and Shining Rock Wildernesses in North Carolina

Freedom is an essential quality of wilderness and this quality was eloquently captured by Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, in his selection of the relatively obscure word “untrammeled” to define wilderness.

Interview with Ed Zahniser - Writer-Editor, NPS Harper's Ferry Center

Many people have commented on the fact that the Wilderness Act is almost, parts of it are almost poetic in character. Was that intentional? Yes, I think that a piece of writing like that is intentional. At one point in drafting of the act, my father wrote to George Marshal, Robert Marshal’s brother, and said this is very frustrating trying to draft legislation. He said that “if I had to do this over again, I’d rather do it in a sonnet or in rhyming couplets. ..the opening sections of the Wilderness Act were very consciously crafted to be very high statements, not poetry because it’s hard to work all those ‘where as’s and ‘therefore’s into great poetry, but it was definitely meant to be a high statement about the value of wilderness and the value of protecting it.

Do you know?

Question: Do you know what “untrammeled” means? Chose from the four choices below:

A. No footprints left behind
B. Free and unconstrained
C. No buses or trams
D. Untrampled

The correct answer is "B." If you chose "B" you are correct! Many people read the word “untrammeled” as “untrampled,” meaning, “not stepped on.” Yet the word “untrammeled” means something much different. A “trammel” is a net used for catching fish, or a device used to keep horses from walking. To trammel something is to catch, shackle , or restrain it. Untrammeled means something is refers to being free or unrestrained. So, Wilderness wilderness areas are to be unconstrained by humans. Zahniser defined “untrammeled” in the Wilderness Act as “not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces.”

When the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, many wild places with campgrounds, hotels, lodges, boardwalks , and scenic overlooks existed for American s visitors to enjoy. What Congress wanted to preserve through the Wilderness Act were wild places free from these developments so future generations could catch a glimpse of what America used to be like. In Wilderness wilderness a tree can rot where it falls, a waterfall can spill over without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan can float on uncontaminated water, and a visitor can hike or horseback -ride the trails or float the waters without interruption from the sights or sounds of our motorized vehicles and mechanized society objects.

Here is why the other answers are incorrect.

A. Leaving no footprints, or no evidence of your visit, behind when you visit wilderness is important. In fact, seven Leave No Trace principles [link to You section where 7 principles are] for wilderness and backcountry travel and camping were created to help guide and educate visitors about how their visits can impact wilderness. However, this isn’t what untrammeled means. Select “free and unconstrained” to learn about the meaning of untrammeled.

C. While it is true that no mechanized vehicles are allowed in wilderness areas, that is not considered in the definition of untrammeled. Select “free and unconstrained” to learn about the meaning of untrammeled.

D. Untrammeled and untrampled certainly sound similar, but that little difference has a huge effect on the meaning. To trample something is to crush it with your foot, while trammel means to restrict or constrain something. Can you see the different now? Select “free and unconstrained” to learn more about the meaning of untrammeled.

Interview with Kelly Hartsell - Park Ranger, Shenandoah National Park

One of the great words that is found in the Wilderness Act is the word the word called, is the word untrammeled. And untrammeled means that we’re not going to hinder the process of nature so wilderness areas are unique because it’s at places set aside where we’re going to manage it in a different way. Here at Shenadoah National Park it’s even more important because wilderness areas and non-wilderness areas kind of co-mingle and people who are coming to Shenandoah National Park may not see that there’s wilderness but there’s an experience in a type of management in these areas that’s different from other places. We try to keep nature’s role there as the primary role.


Preserved values and resources

Wilderness contributes to the ecologic, economic, and social health and well-being of U.S. and foreign citizens, the United States, and the world. The highly valued benefits that wilderness areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves.

Do you know?

Question: What are the six values of wilderness outlined in the Wilderness Act?

Answer: ecological, geological, scientific, education, scenic, historic.

Question: Which of these is most important?

Answer: None. The Wilderness Act treats each of these values and being equally as important as each of the other values because a wilderness may contain any or all them.

Recreational Values

Some people think that Wilderness wilderness is a “lock -up” of land out of which people are locked. and that people are locked out. However, this is That’s not true at all. Another common misconception is that hiking by foot is the only means of travel within Wilderness wilderness and that w Wilderness prohibits many types of recreation. But that’s this is not true either. In fact, more than 12 million people visit Wilderness wilderness each year on their own or with a guide to climb mountains, ride horses, hunt game, fish blue-ribbon trout streams, ski snowcapped peaks, raft run rivers, canoe lakes, take pictures , and gaze at clear night skies stargaze. In short, most types of recreational uses are allowed in Wilderness wilderness, except those needing mechanical transport or motorized equipment, such as motorboats, cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, bicycles , and snowmobiles. Wheelchairs are allowed in Wilderness wilderness and Americans people with disabilities are encouraged to enjoy the benefits wilderness has to offer.

In addition to the incredible recreational opportunities available in Wilderness wilderness, Wilderness wilderness preservation has many other important values. The Wilderness Act specified that Wilderness wilderness “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, education, scenic, or historical value.”

Ecological Values

Ecology is the study of how plants and animals interact with and are connected to each other and their environment. It is also the study of how natural processes like floods, fire , and predation affect these relationships, or connections, and the environment. As John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” More and more, we realize that we are part of an interconnected “web of life,” and that our survival may ultimately depend on the survival of natural areas like Wilderness wilderness. Wilderness plays a significant role in the overall health of ecosystems. Natural disturbances like floods or fires maintain natural processes, systems and patterns. Few places are left where we allow rivers to flood and trees to burn in natural cycles; natural disturbances like floods or fires occur along a continuum of natural processes, systems, and patterns in wilderness. Preserving Wilderness wilderness may someday be seen through the eyes of historians as the most important contribution societies can make to the health of the global environment.

Wilderness improves the quality of our air because trees and other plants produce oxygen. This helps to decrease the “greenhouse effect” where heat is trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere, which contains increasing amounts of carbon dioxide due to human activities.

Do you know where the water you drink comes from? Many communities in states such as California , Virginia , and Idaho use water that starts flowing in Wilderness wilderness. In fact, some Wilderness wilderness areas were designated in order to preserve healthy watersheds for current and future generations. Even if the water from your faucet comes from a well in your backyard, Wilderness wilderness areas provide important places , such as wetlands, for cleansing rain purifying water as it enters the ground water supply .

What is your “watershed address,” the source of the water you drink? “Watershed addresses ” provides a locations of water sources, just like a mailing address es give s a location of a houses or apartments. Large watersheds are comprised composed of smaller watersheds, just like states are comprised composed of cities. To find a watershed address, use a map to locate your community and its immediate water source. Then trace that water source back to its origins. For example, if you live in Washington , D.C., your drinking water comes from the Potomac River. That river is fed by many smaller rivers, including the Shenandoah River . That river flows with contributions from many streams, including Big Run. The Big Run watershed is within designated wilderness in Shenandoah National Park . So, though diluted from other sources in its long journey, the water used in downtown Washington , D.C., is partly from a protected Wilderness wilderness area.

Not only does wilderness protect the air we breathe and the water we Wilderness also drink, it also protects the wildlife we cherish. Millions of birds use Wilderness wilderness as nesting and wintering grounds, and resting places when migrating. Many animals, such as the wolf, bear, moose, and elk make their homes in Wilderness wilderness. Wilderness helps maintain the genetic material needed to provide a continuing diversity of plant and animal life. The thought that one might glimpse a wolf or a grizzly bear around the next bend is humbling humbles us before the power of nature but also and invigorates our spirit of adventure. Without the space and isolation that Wilderness wilderness offers, these and other wildlife species could not survive. Without wildlife to pollinate, fertilize , and distribute seeds and nutrients, Wilderness wilderness wouldn’t would not exist. Wilderness allows the natural cycling of birth, life, and death for thousands of animal species in their natural environments. Their presence helps us be more aware of the connection that all living things share, and that we are all a part of the circle of life.

Geological Values

The Wilderness Act specifically states that areas may be set aside for their geological significance. Wilderness preserves valuable natural features including caves, volcanoes, canyons, geysers, mountains, fossils, glaciers, and beaches. Examples of such areas include the Phillip Burton, Badlands , Shenandoah, Fire Island , and Indian Peaks Wilderness Areas. These and other “geological” Wildernesses wildernesses help us discover the history of our planet, see how present ecological systems compare to past ones, and anticipate what future changes may occur.

Point Reyes National Park (Phillip Burton Wilderness)

Along the heavily populated coast of California , wilderness is hard to find. But Point Reyes National Seashore is such a wild place. This wilderness is part of the breath-taking scenery of the rugged northern California coast, just north of San Francisco. Unlike its sister coastline on the Atlantic, only a narrow margin of coastal plain exists, and very often the rugged terrain of the coastal mountain range comes right down to the sea. The temperate climate of California and the diverse landscape - sometimes rugged, sometimes gentle - creates a pleasing habitat for a variety of plants and animals. However, what sets this coastal wilderness landscape apart from many others is the knife-like incision of the San Andreas Fault which splits across the area.  

Ecosystems along coasts are typically some of the most interesting because of the multiplicity of geological processes created by a combination of terrestrial and marine systems. These conditions provide an abundance of niches within habitats. Though the physical forces of wind, rain, waves, eroding headlands, and deposition of sediment are major players, the left-lateral, strike-slip transverse fault, known as San Andreas, looms big in the picture here. At Point Reyes the fault leaves the land and slips away from sight under the waves of the Pacific Ocean . The fault marks the place where two gigantic plates of Earth’s crust collide and slowly grind past each other. Normally the annual rate of change does not upset the ecosystem balance, but when pent-up energy along this massive fault is released, the gash at Earth’s surface is wrenched apart , leaving visible scars. In some instances the quaking ground turns the unconsolidated surface to quicksand, sucking things down into the depths below Earth’s surface.

An earthquake would be an exciting thing to see in one’s lifetime. To witness such an event would certainly enhance the wilderness experience, but may leave the visitor a bit worse for wear. It might be similar to the thrill or angst of witnessing an erupting volcano or advancing tidal wave. Seeing tectonic plates colliding is not something you can experience in most wilderness areas, and it makes Point Reyes unique.

Badlands National Park

Whether deserved or not, even today, these wild lands wildlands - the badlands - carry with them a reputation from another century. Here, the erosional pattern creates a rugged landscape, which make it easy to get lost and impossible to navigate when wet from a summer downpour. The stark and relentless geology helped prevent development of this land, keeping it wild. The westward-moving pioneers avoided the area to the greatest extent possible, and they gave the area its name - Badlands . The centerpiece of this landscape is composed of rolling hills, entrenched gullies, and sculptured pillars of rock that create a maze for those adventurous enough to hike through it. To those more accustomed to a lush landscape, the land may appear bleak and void of vegetation, but rest assured, this ecosystem harmoniously exists. The plants, animals, rocks, and soils are functioning in a natural relationship with the forces of this arid climate.

Similar terrain elsewhere in the western United States also has been called “badlands;” these areas share a common erosional pattern created by the weathering of intermittent hard and soft layers of rock. When the rains come, the landscape appears to melt, as the fine-grained clays, silts, and sands catch a ride with the growing rivulets of water streaming downward. On the gentle slopes and flat areas, this concoction slows its pace, making a fine mud, which turns the landscape into a quagmire. Because of the accelerated erosion - geologically speaking - that takes place in this sequence of rocks, the austerely beautiful erosional features do not exist at the surface for very long. We are fortunate to be able to witness these fleeting “bad” lands, but make a mental note: the next time you visit, the landscape will have changed with tons of material eroding to the sea.

Shenandoah National Park

The wilderness of Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia , preserves a sample of the Blue Ridge Mountain province that stretches from New England to Tennessee . These mountains are some of the oldest in North America, far older that their western cousins - the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada . The highest Blue Ridge peaks range from 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,219 to 1,829 m) high. They support hardwood forests, famous for their colorful fall foliage. The wilderness area is at the headwaters of a portion of the massive network of eastern watersheds that moves water and sediment to the coastal plane. This mountain wilderness provides a much needed place of refuge and solitude, a respite away from the teeming millions of people that populate the cities and suburbs of the East Coast.

Having undergone the process of metamorphism, the rocks of this mountain wilderness have had a long and stressful history. Extreme heat and pressure deep within Earth’s crust changed these rocks, which like all other rocks, left bits and pieces of forensic evidence of changes. Geologists, like detectives, have been trained to discover clues of what happened at the “scene of the crime,” deciphering formation, transformation, and complete loss of rock material through years of erosion. This is what is known as a “geological story.”

In the past, powerful forces pursed these mountains skyward, to heights perhaps greater than the Rockies or the Sierras. Today, however, graceful aging by erosion continues. Earth’s great recycling machine is at work moving the material of these once high and mighty mountains to a comfortable resting place on the expanding Atlantic coastal plane.

Fire Island National Seashore

Fire Island takes its name from a n illusion created by the glancing rays of sunlight on local foliage. Though only a vision, this “island in flame” is an integral and fitting part of wilderness, which itself was built on visionary ideas.

Fire Island is one of many barrier islands in the island chain along the Atlantic Coast . As the term barrier implies, geological processes have formed a natural protection for the mainland against the onslaught of the sea. Terrestrial forces fight the endless ranks of oncoming marine waves in this endless battle. This wilderness offers a glimpse into the nature of struggle between terrestrial and marine forces. As the fight goes on, plants and animals from the land and sea take advantage of any ecological niche created by the struggling forces. As the topographic battle lines change, creating new inlets and changing overall shape, so do the micro-climates and the species that inhabit them.

The battle lines are drawn in large part on the basis of geology. Each side has a seemingly endless supply of reserves from which to call upon to maintain the battlefront. The terrestrial ranks (sediment) start their march high up in the mountainous headwaters of a watershed. They continue their fluvial journey until they are dumped into the army of sediment in the bays, lagoons, and coast of the seashore. On the other side, the sea appears to have a bottomless ocean of water from which to draw upon and a limitless supply of wind to form its waves. Daily tides and occasional “big artillery” (i.e., tidal waves) assist marine forces. The barrier island continually sorts things out. The sand at the seaward side of the island can withstand the abusive high energy caused by the waves. Behind the beach are the reserves - a single rank or many sand dunes. The dunes stand ready to join the combat when called to face the sea. Behind that, on the landward side of the island, are the fine-grained materials of silts and clays, resting on the gentle slopes, to eventually submerge under the placid waters of the back bay. The barrier island ecosystem, celebrated by this wilderness, has impressively adjusted to some of the most dynamic forces on Earth.

Indian Peaks Wilderness

Three compelling stories encapsulate the nearly two-billion-year-old history of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area in Colorado . The first story is ancient and takes place during Precambrian time. This tale harkens back to when continents were beginning to form. The metamorphic and igneous rocks—pieces of Earth’s crust, most of which are between 1.4 and 1.7 billion years old—serve as a physical backdrop for this story. These are the oldest rocks in the wilderness, and some of the oldest in the National Wilderness Preservation System and the world.

The second story is much more recent. Between 75 and 20 million years ago, several stocks and hundreds of dikes and sills intruded the Precambrian rocks in the Indian Peaks . The precious-metal (gold and silver) and base-metal (lead, zinc, and copper) deposits of the Colorado Mineral Belt were created by these igneous events. The Colorado Mineral Belt is a northeast-southwest trending zone 10 to 60 miles (16 to 97 km) wide, extending from the Front Range north of Boulder , Colorado , to the La Plata Mountains northwest of Durango, Colorado . All the famous mining towns (e.g., Aspen , Telluride, Silverton, Leadville, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Central City), many smaller towns, and camps - now ghost towns - are located in this relatively narrow but productive belt.

The third story is an ice age one, which is still unfolding. The main characters left quite a bit of evidence, but geologists are still working out the timing of events. Two major valley glaciations, a smaller cirque glaciation, and periods of ice accumulation are recorded in the wilderness . The two Pleistocene glaciations, Bull Lake and Pinedale, produced the rugged look of today’s alpine scenery. Many of the distinctive geologic features found throughout the Indian Peaks have a glacial origin.

Scientific Values

Wilderness is a natural laboratory where scientists can study our the natural world. In wilderness, scientists can collect data over time so they can learn how natural processes and setting are this natural world is changing. We know that people can rapidly make changes to landscapes, and that these changes affect the environment, but we often wonder what rate is a “natural” rate of change, without human influence. What are the natural rates and recurrence intervals of landslides, earthquakes, sea level change, fire , or flooding? What are the natural rates of change in air and water quality and plant and animal populations? How do these natural rates of change in Wilderness wilderness differ from similar changes in our towns and cities? Studies that answer these questions help us understand what we need to do to ensure the future health of our environment, both in Wilderness wilderness and where we live.

Social science also makes an essential contribution to wilderness. Social scientists study visitor use, attitudes, and behavior in wilderness areas, which draw s attention to the importance of examining the human element of wilderness. Social scientists across the country are actively involved in research related to the human dimensions of wilderness management. Social science delivers usable knowledge to managers and the general public interested in wilderness recreation experiences.

Interview with Terry Terrell - Science Officer, Rocky Mountain National Park

Part of the reason that this research program is important in the context of wilderness is that it is an integral part in the way that the National Park Service actually keeps track of the health of wilderness in the sense of keeping it wild, keeping it unaffected by human actions to the extent that’s possible. Of course, we haven’t managed to put a giant plastic shield over the top of the park, so we’re affected by weather conditions, changes in the global climate, changes in the air quality, from air that’s transported say from Denver or the front range area, from industrial areas, from farming areas in the state of Colorado . But the research program does help us keep track of those kinds of issues.

Interview with Steve Bair - Backcountry Wilderness and Trails Manager, Shenandoah National Park

As far as social research, we’ve done a great deal of social research in the backcountry and wilderness, we did a very large study in 1998 with Virginia Tech, we learned a great deal of what people think of the wilderness in general and what people know about wilderness in the Shenandoah National Park; we were able to examine a lot of perceptions and values and attitudes, gave us a tremendous amount of information about people’s knowledge and interest in designated wilderness. From that information, from that research, basically our wilderness education program was launched, along with other programs, but that was very important research. What we are trying to do now is continue to monitor visitor experience conditions, which essentially is research, and our intent is to on a regular basis monitor the social conditions in the wilderness by interviewing visitors, or observing certain visitor conditions such as certain social conditions, such as numbers of encounters, which of course relates to crowding, that sort of thing; whether visitors are finding solitude in designated wilderness; we can ask visitors what their opinions are, what their views are, their perceptions, and from that, we can continue to monitor whether or not visitors are getting the kind of experience they expect from designated wilderness.

Educational Values

Wilderness is a teacher, and wilderness areas are living classrooms where we can learn about ourselves and the world around us. Wilderness provides a unique setting for teaching ecosystem stewardship as well as science, literature, art, history, civics, outdoor skills, and other subjects. Lessons learned by paddling down a rushing river or by using a map and compass to travel cross-country can help students realize self-reliance and improve self-esteem. Working together as a team can foster great achievement and help to instill the importance of group cooperation and collaboration in attaining personal goals. Many visitors come to wilderness, not only for the self-reliant, challenging recreational experiences it provides, but as a haven or refuge from a fast-paced, developed society.

However, the educational benefits of wilderness reach beyond achieving personal goals or receiving personal gains as a result of wilderness experiences. Students learn how their actions, behaviors, and choices affect wilderness and learn values of humility and restraint. Understanding the relationship Americans have shared with wilderness in the past helps students explore our current relationship with wilderness and instills in young stewards an appreciation for land ethics.

Scenic and Aesthetic Values

Wilderness is often associated with expansive natural landscapes, sometimes highlighted by clear blue skies, a radiant sunset, or a dazzling display of stars. While some people will never visit wilderness, and many will view it only through a car window, anyone can visit wilderness in photographs or in their mind. From the wind and wave sculpted islands of the Washington Islands Wilderness to the towering heights of Mount McKinley in the Denali Wilderness, magnificent scenery inspires and humbles us. Drawn initially to grand scenery, we may discover the subtle beauty of small wonders: multi-colored mushrooms and patches of moss. We can find a connection to grand places on a small scale.

The sudden change from a hot, sunny day to a powerful storm exploding with lightning and roaring with thunder, the delightful sound of a trickling stream, the feel of bark from a thousand-year-old Bristlecone pine, the morning light beaming on cliffs and ridges; a glassy lake reflecting a peak: these are moments we cherish, whether seen in books or movies or with our own eyes. We are enchanted by nature, become participants, feeling part of, not in control of, wilderness.

Because finding a place to escape from the sights and sounds of our fast-paced, motorized and mechanized, urban civilization sometimes seems impossible, part of the beauty of wilderness is in what we do not see or hear. Natural darkness allows us to see stars that we would not normally see even in the darkest areas of our cities. In the solitude of wilderness it is quiet enough for us to reflect upon ourselves and our place in the world. In the natural quiet of wilderness, one hears the refrains of nature, the pulse of the Earth. With every beat comes a heightened awareness of our connection to life around us. Wilderness visitors are inspired and humbled by the feeling of being part of something larger than themselves.

Interview with Laura Buchheit - Wilderness Education Specialist, Shenadoah National Park

There are so many ways that a person can experience Shenandoah's wilderness area, because of its location and because it’s along a ridge line local residents surrounding Shenandoah National Park and Shenandoah wilderness area can see the wilderness area from their backyard. I have a great view of part of Shenandoah's wilderness area right from the front porch of my house. So there’s a value to that wilderness for people who are driving along the interstate, driving along the country roads, driving all around Shenandoah National Park, or taking walks or hikes you don't even have to be in Shenandoah National Park in order to experience and appreciate the scenic value of Shenandoah's wilderness area … There are people also who want to get off the road, and therefore you can go hiking and hike into the wilderness area. And you can also backpack. You can spend several days - you can spend several weeks hiking through Shenandoah National Park and appreciating, enjoying, and experiencing, truly immersing yourself into the wilderness area. But even just knowing that its there for people who maybe visit once or maybe never visit at all there’s something about just knowing that its there that has a value and you can experience Shenandoah wilderness area just in your mind through imagining what it might be like.

Historical and Cultural Values

Much of the history of our great nation lies within the boundaries of wilderness. American values of freedom, ingenuity, and independence have been affected by the wild environments from which we created societies. Wilderness is a place where we can connect with the past and where we can be reminded of how the American frontier helped to shape our present-day culture. Cave paintings and burial grounds tell us a story about Native Americans who lived here before Europeans settled the frontier. Old cabins or homestead sites portray the hardships of early settlers. Cultural and archaeological sites found in wilderness can provide a more complete picture of human history and culture, including indigenous peoples, conquests, colonialism, and independence. These important historical and cultural resources represent the very roots of our American existence.

Interview with Gary Somers - Chief, Natural and Cultural Resources, Shenandoah

Every aspect of cultural resources is contained in wilderness. We have archeological sites both prehistoric and historic. We have structures, both historic and prehistoric. We have ethnographic resources, resources that are culturally important to native American cultures and other cultures that may or may not have physical manifestations, but are identified by that culture as being sacred, ceremonially important, those sorts of things. We have cultural landscapes in wilderness. We often don’t think about that and most of them are being reverted back to a much more natural state.


Landmark legislation

Since the Wilderness Act was passed, many additional bills recommending wilderness designation have been introduced and debated. Many of these bills were signed into law, creating new designated wilderness areas in federal lands. While every wilderness law is significant to the National Wilderness Preservation System, three laws stand as milestones in wilderness legislation: the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and the California Desert Protection Act.

To find an act designating a certain wilderness area, you can go online to the public law library through www.wilderness.net.

Do you know?

Question: Can you briefly summarize the importance of the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act (EWAA), the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) and the California Desert Act (CDA)?

Answer: The EWAA demonstrated a willingness to consider lands that had clear signs of past human use for wilderness designation and added 16 areas in 13 states to the NWPS. ANILCA added 56 million acres of wilderness, the single greatest addition in the NWPS, and provided special provisions for wilderness areas in Alaska . The CDA designated the most acreage in the lower 48 states, primarily within the BLM.

Eastern Wilderness Areas Act

This act actually has no name. Apparently, in a rush, a clerical error was made that omitted the formal short title. Technically, it is Public Law (PL) 93-622. However, based on congressional records, it is referred to as the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act.

Even though the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act directly applied only to the USDA Forest Service, legislating 16 wilderness areas in 14 national forests in 13 eastern states, it demonstrated a national willingness to consider federal lands that had clear signs of past human use for wilderness designation. The passage of the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act verified the intention of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that lands did not have to be pristine in order to qualify as wilderness. Previously disturbed lands could be restored to meet wilderness standards and qualities.

Frank Church, a senator from Idaho who served during many wilderness discussions, made the following statement regarding prior impact to wilderness areas:

This is one of the great promises of the Wilderness Act, that we can dedicate formerly abused areas where the primeval scene can be restored by natural forces, so that we can have a truly National Wilderness Preservation System. I have heard it said by some who are simply ill-informed that no areas in the eastern United States can meet the test of qualification under the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act. This is just not so.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)

President Jimmy Carter, a strong supporter of wilderness, signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law in 1980. By adding more than 56 million acres (22,663,200 ha), ANILCA nearly tripled the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The National Park Service and USDA Forest Service now manage most of this land but many of the largest wilderness areas managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were designated by ANILCA. Additionally, millions of acres were authorized for further wilderness study. The law provided special provisions for wilderness areas in Alaska , such as the use of motorized equipment for native subsistence activities.

California Desert Protection Act

The California Desert Protection Act, signed in 1994 by President Clinton, designated the most wilderness acreage for the lower 48 states to date. In addition to establishing two national parks and one preserve, the California Desert Protection Act added 7.6 million acres (3,075,720 ha) of “ untrammeled” beauty to the National Wilderness Preservation System, primarily in Bureau of Land Management areas. The California desert contains some of the most outstanding scenic, cultural, ecological, scientific, and recreational resources in the nation, including sand dunes, extinct volcanoes, 90 mountain ranges, the world’s largest Joshua tree forest, and more than 100,000 archaeological sites. Furthermore, these varied landforms provide habitat for more than 760 wildlife species.

In support of the legislation, Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club’s California-Nevada Desert Committee, stated, “My most memorable visit to the desert will be my next one, because now I know that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to experience it as I have: from the vastness of a mountaintop to the spirituality of a shaman’s cave.”



Introductory Video Text

Introduction to wilderness

What is wilderness?

Where is wilderness?

Why did U.S. citizens feel the need to legally protect wilderness?

How is wilderness managed?

Who is involved with wilderness today?

Wilderness up close

How can you help?



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