National Wilderness Preservation System

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The Wilderness Act protects exceptional undisturbed natural areas and scenery, such as in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) of the United States protects federally managed wilderness areas designated for preservation in their natural condition. Activity on formally designated wilderness areas is coordinated by the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness areas are managed by four federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The term wilderness is defined as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" and "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."[1] There are currently 758 designated wilderness areas, totaling 109,511,038 acres (44,317,545 ha), or about 4.5% of the area of the United States.[2]


During the 1950s and 1960s, as the American transportation system was on the rise, concern for clean air and water quality began to grow. A conservation movement began to take place with the intent of establishing designated wilderness areas. Howard Zahniser created the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. It took nine years and 65 rewrites before the Wilderness Act was finally passed in 1964.[3] The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-577), which established the NWPS, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964. The Wilderness Act mandated that the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review all federal lands under their jurisdiction for wilderness areas to include in the NWPS. The Great Swamp in New Jersey became the first formally designated wilderness refuge in the United States. It had been declared a National Wildlife Refuge on November 3, 1960, and it had been declared a National Natural Landmark in 1966, but it was given wilderness status in 1968.

The Bureau of Land Management was not required to review its lands for inclusion in the NWPS until after October 21, 1976, when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 was signed into law. This Act was designed "To establish public land policy; to establish guidelines for its administration; to provide for the management, protection, development, and enhancement of the public lands; and for other purposes."[4] It clarified landholdings of the Bureau of Land Management. It also created a deadline within fifteen years after October 21, 1976, for the Secretary of the Interior to review lands for consideration as wilderness areas, and to report to the President by July 1, 1980, recommendations on those areas "formally identified as natural or primitive areas" prior to November 1, 1975.[4] The 1980 deadline may have contributed to the dramatic spike of wilderness acreage added for that year, as did enormous acreage added by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was signed into law on December 2, 1980.[5] The net result has been the creation of hundreds of wilderness areas within Bureau of Land Management administered lands, consisting of approximately 8.71 million acres (3,520,000 ha).[2]

Acres of Wilderness Added By Year [6]

As of August 2008, a total of 704 separate wilderness areas, encompassing 107,514,938 acres (43,509,752 ha), had become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.[7] With the passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Act in March 2009, there were 756 wilderness areas. Since then, there have been two additional areas to be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System - Elkhorn Ridge Wilderness (January 13, 2011) and Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness (March 13, 2014).[8] On June 2, 2014,6,690 acres (2,710 ha) of potential wilderness were converted to designated wilderness and added to the Congaree Wilderness.[2]

Recently designated High Schells Wilderness, Nevada

The U.S. system[edit]

On federal lands in the United States, Congress may designate an area as wilderness under the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Multiple agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, among others, are responsible for the submission of new areas that fit the criteria to become wilderness to congress. Congress then reviews these cases on a state by state basis and determines which areas and how much land in each area will become part of the WPS. There have been multiple occasions in which congress designated more federal land than had been recommended by the nominating agency.[9] Whereas the Wilderness Act stipulated that a wilderness area must be "administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.",[9] the Eastern Wilderness Act, which added 16 National Forest areas to the NWPS, allowed for the inclusion of areas that had been severely modified by human interference.[1]

The Wilderness Act provides criteria for lands being considered for wilderness designation. Though there are some exceptions, the following conditions must be present for an area to be included in the NWPS: (1) the land is under federal ownership and management, (2) the area consists of at least five thousand acres of land, (3) human influence is “substantially unnoticeable,” (4) there are opportunities for solitude and recreation, and (5) the area possesses “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”[1]

Wilderness Boundary Marker in Idaho

Wilderness areas are subject to specific management restrictions; human activities are limited to non-motorized recreation (such as backpacking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, etc.), scientific research, and other non-invasive activities. During these activities, patrons are asked to abide by the "Leave No Trace" policy. This policy sets guidelines for using the wilderness responsibly, and leaving the area as it was before usage. These guidelines include: Packing all trash out of the wilderness, using a stove as opposed to a fire, camping at least 200 feet (61 m) from trails or water sources, staying on marked trails, and keeping group size small. When closely observed, the "Leave No Trace" ethos ensures that wilderness areas remain untainted by human interaction.[10] In general, the law prohibits logging, mining, mechanized vehicles (including bicycles), road-building, and other forms of development in wilderness areas, though pre-existing mining claims and grazing ranges are permitted through grandfather clauses in the Wilderness Act.[11] Wilderness areas fall into IUCN protected area management category Ia (Strict Nature Preserves) or Ib (Wilderness areas).

Wilderness areas are parts of national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and the public domain, and may include land in several different units managed by different agencies. Initially, the NWPS included 34 areas protecting 9.1 million acres (37,000 km2) in the national forests. Today, there are 757 wilderness areas in the NWPS, preserving 109,511,966 acres (44,317,920 ha). This is approximately 5% of the entire United States, though only about 2.7% of the 48 contiguous states. The states with the highest number of wildernesses are California, Arizona, Nevada, Alaska, and Oregon. However, when measured in acres the list changes dramatically, as Alaska contains many of the largest areas protected under the act. In terms of total acres, Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington are the top five states for wilderness.[8] Wilderness areas exist in every state except Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island.[7]

Some state and tribal governments also designate wilderness areas under their own authority and local laws. These are not federal areas, and the exact nature of protection may differ from federal laws.

Most U.S. wilderness areas are in National Forests, but the largest amount of wilderness land is administered by the National Park Service. The largest contiguous wilderness complex in the United States is the Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wildernesses in Alaska at 12,743,329 acres (5,157,042 ha). The largest wilderness area outside Alaska is the Death Valley Wilderness in southeastern California. The smallest area protected by the WPS is the Pelican Island Wilderness in northern Florida, which measures just 6 acres (2.4 ha) total. The smallest area preserved in the system was formerly the Rocks and Islands Wilderness in Northern California at 5 acres (2.0 ha), but after a reassessment by the Bureau of Land Management in 2006 it was officially expanded to 19 acres (7.7 ha).[8]

A special exemption to the "no mechanized equipment" rule is made for wilderness areas in Alaska: limited use of motorized vehicles and construction of cabins and aquaculture are permitted.[1] These exemptions were allowed due to the large amount of wilderness in Alaska and the concerns of subsistence users, including Alaska Natives.

Recently designated Red Mountain Wilderness, Nevada

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The legislation designated an additional 2 million acres (810,000 ha) in nine states as wilderness, representing the largest expansion of wilderness lands in over 25 years.[12]

International efforts[edit]

On November 7, 2009, an agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico entitled the "Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation for Wilderness Conservation" was made. This agreement created a new entity, the North American Intergovernmental Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation, that would streamline the process for open communication between international agencies for the purpose of wilderness preservation.[13] This committee was formed to gain insight on the benefits of wilderness preservation, establish open channels of communication between international agencies, and examine the cultural differences and similarities behind preservation efforts in each country.[13] Within the U.S. system, all of the agencies responsible for wilderness preservation will work in cooperation with their international counterparts to determine the future of both the U.S. system and North American preservation efforts as a whole.

Wildlife preservation[edit]

Amphibians, like this salamander in the Cohutta Wilderness of North Georgia, are among the many types of fauna protected by the NWPS.

One of the major goals of the Wilderness Preservation System is to provide undeveloped habitats for threatened or endangered species.[9] Many of the species found in the United States are represented in wilderness areas. There are 261 basic ecosystems in the U.S., and 157 of them are represented in the system. With 60% of all ecosystems somewhat protected by the NWPS, much of the wildlife in the U.S. also has an area in which to exist without significant human interaction.[9]

In late 2011, a full wilderness review was requested of the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain in Alaska. One of the major qualifications for this area to be considered as a possible wilderness area was its diverse wildlife population, many of which are on the endangered species list.[9] In this potential wilderness area alone, whales, seals, wolves, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen, caribou, and over 200 species of migratory birds call this one area home for at least part of the year. This vast assortment of flora and fauna is a major consideration for addition into the wilderness preservation system.[14]

Laws and policies[edit]

Thousands of laws and policies have helped shape and manage the National Wilderness Preservation System in the United States. The following Acts of Congress either directly affect the wilderness system or help influence wilderness management.[15]

  • General Mining Act of 1872 This Act declares public lands free and open for mineral exploration and occupancy. Procedures for mining claims and operations are established in this act as well as management of wilderness areas that contain minerals and other natural resources.
  • Antiquities Act of 1906, National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 These Acts help protect and manage heritage resources on federal lands. They also aid in conserving valuable public and natural areas in order to protect objects of historic and scientific interest.
  • National Park Service Organic Act This Act was established in 1916 by the National Park Service and was enacted to conserve the scenery, wildlife, and both natural and historic objects for the enjoyment of the American Public.
  • Wilderness Act This Act, which was passed in 1964, classified and protected 54 wilderness areas (about 9.1 million acres) and established a system of adding new lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System. It also allowed jurisdiction over these wilderness areas by the Forest Service, National Park Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service. The Act also set up prohibitions on motorized and mechanized vehicles, timber harvest, and other means of development in these areas.
  • National Environmental Policy Act (1970, 1975, 1982) This Act required federal agencies to consider and evaluate the environmental impacts of proposed actions. It also requires agencies to identify environmental impacts that are unavoidable and to evaluate all resources in the area before committing to a proposed action. This Act directs federal agencies to prepare and submit Environmental Impact Statements before development on public lands.
  • Clean Air Act (1963, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1990) This Act established human health and welfare standards. It established Class I areas to be wilderness land greater than 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) and national parks that are greater than 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) that existed in 1977. This designation gives these areas special protection from the degradation of air quality by human-caused air pollution. This Act also requires states to develop and implement plans to reduce haze to natural levels by the year 2064 and calls for extensive monitoring of air quality related values (visibility, flora, fauna, soil, and water) across the nation.
  • Clean Water Act (1948, 1972, 1977, 1987) This Act aims at protecting healthy waters and restoring unhealthy ones. It establishes the structure of regulating pollutants that are discharged into water and for regulating quality standards of waters in the United States. It set up pollution control standards and made it illegal to dump pollutants into waters around the U.S. without a permit.[16]
  • Endangered Species Act (1973, 1978, 1982) Establishes a program to protect plants and animals that are being threatened with extinction. The Act recognizes certain plants and animals and establishes specific procedures for adding a species to the endangered list under a protective status. It also sets up programs with states across the U.S. as well as civil penalties for violation of this Act.
  • Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) This Act specifically provided for the designation and conservation of public lands in Alaska. This added about 27 million acres (110,000 km2) to the National Wilderness Preservation System along with several wild and scenic rivers. With this Act, Congress hoped to preserve the unaltered arctic areas as well as the tundra, boreal forests, and coastal rain forest ecosystems. It also helped to protect wildlife habitats for species who were dependent upon large undeveloped areas of land.

Managing agencies[edit]

Acres managed by Each Agency
Established in 1916, this agency helps protect nearly 400 national parks. They also aid local tribes and governments, as well as non-profit organizations and businesses, by preserving local history and revitalizing communities.
Established in 1905, this agency manages public lands in national forests or grasslands, which encompasses about 193 million acres (780,000 km2) of land.[17]
Established in 1940, this agency manages 150 million acres (610,000 km2) of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as thousands of small wetlands and other special land areas. Some of their contributions include: protecting and conserving endangered species and their wildlife habitats and enforcing federal wildlife laws.
This agency's National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) includes over 886 federally recognized areas and more than 27 million acres (110,000 km2) of land in the U.S. They aim to protect wilderness areas, as well as wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, and historic trails. It safeguards cultural sites and many Indian preserves of the western states. The mission of the NLCS is to "conserve, protect, and restore these nationally significant landscapes that are recognized for their outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values." [18]

State-level counterparts[edit]

Some U.S. states have created wilderness preservation programs modeled on the NWPS.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "The Wilderness Act of 1964". Retrieved 2012-03-06. 
  2. ^ a b c "Wilderness Fact Sheet". Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  3. ^ "Environmental Timeline Overview". Retrieved 2012-03-09. 
  4. ^ a b U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and Office of the Solicitor (editors). (2001). The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, as amended. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management Office of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C. 69 pp.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System Map". 
  7. ^ a b "The National Wilderness Preservation System". Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  8. ^ a b c "Fast Facts". Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "What is Wilderness?". The Wilderness Society. 
  10. ^ "Recreation Use of Wilderness". Wilderness Management Issues. 
  11. ^ "Resource Management". Retrieved 7 December 2011. 
  12. ^ "HR 146: Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009". Retrieved 2009-04-08. 
  13. ^ a b "North American Cooperation on Wilderness". The WILD Foundation. 2009-11-07. Retrieved 2013-08-09. 
  14. ^ "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Considers Wilderness for Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain". Alaska. Audubon Society. 
  15. ^ "Overview of Key Wilderness Laws". Retrieved 2012-03-09. 
  16. ^ "Summary of the Clean Water Act". Laws and Regulations. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 
  17. ^ "About Us". U.S. Forest Service. 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2013-08-09. 
  18. ^ "National Conservation Lands". Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved 2013-08-09. 

External links[edit]