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recreation > wilderness > what is wilderness

What Is Wilderness

What is Wilderness?Photo of the Indian Peaks Wilderness

In 1964, the Congress of the United States took a far-sighted action by passing the Wilderness Act, legally designating certain federal lands as Wilderness. Congress preserved these lands to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition. (The Wilderness Act). The Wilderness Act prohibits roads, mining, timber cutting, and motorized vehicles in these areas.


Values and Benefits of Wilderness

Wilderness has many values. Recognizing these diverse and unique values opens a world of understanding about the natural environment. Preserving wilderness may someday be seen through eyes of historians as the most important contribution societies can make to the health of the global environment.


Reservoirs of Biological Diversity

The outstanding scientific discovery of the Twentieth Century is not the television, or radio, but rather the complexity
of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it.

- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

Wilderness is one part of the land organism. Wilderness plays a significant role in the overall health of ecosystems. Rare and endangered plant and animal species require relatively undisturbed habitats so gene pools can be sustained, adaptations made, and populations maintained. Many rare and endangered species are indicators of ecological health, or they may play key roles in the balance of the ecosystem. Natural disturbances like floods or fires maintain natural processes, systems, and patterns. Few places are left where rivers flood and trees are allowed to burn in natural cycles. Wildness is the heart of the "land organism."

Scientific Value

Wilderness serves as a unique and irreplaceable "living laboratory" for medicinal and scientific research. Wilderness also protects geologic resources. Undisturbed, naturally occurring geologic phenomena are protected for present and future generations so they may understand the origin of this planet and the universe.

Photo of Creek in the Lost Creek WildernessWatersheds

Many wildernesses are the headwaters of our rivers and water systems. These watersheds provide sources of clean water for the American public. Minimal human activity or development in these areas preserves water for future generations. Without clean water, societies cannot flourish. The connection between wildernesses and our cities is most evident with water, our basic resource.



Life Support Systems

Wilderness serves as critical habitat for animal and plant life. Wilderness maintains gene pools that maintain plant and animal life diversity. Today, as we learn more about the greenhouse effect and the o-zone layer depletion, more people realize that humanity is part of an interconnected "web of life" and that the survival of our own species may ultimately depend on the survival of natural areas.

Historic and Cultural Values

Wilderness is a unique repository for cultural resources. Artifacts and structures protected by the Archeological Resources Protection Act or other laws take on a new perspective when experienced within the context of wilderness. These features tell a valuable story about the human relationship with wilderness. In addition, wilderness defines culture. The wild environments from which we created societies have affected our American values of freedom, ingenuity, and independence. Wildness has been a part of America since its beginnings. For this reason, Americans have a special attraction to wilderness.

Spiritual Values

The spirit of the land can be understood through the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Zen, the Buddhist, or simply an individual's connections through experience. These wildlands offer opportunities for reflection, observation, and exploration of the ideas and experiences that can only be found in our wild areas. They have become churches of sorts, for our personal growth and our understanding of the relations between humans and the land.

Aesthetic ValuesPhoto of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness

The sudden change from a hot sunny day to a powerful storm exploding in lightning and roaring 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 picture books, movies, or with our own eyes. Call it beauty. Nature enchants humans. We are not in control. We are participants. This is the aesthetic of wilderness that has a special value.


Photo of man scrambling over rocks on Eagles Nest WildernessRecreation

Many people enjoy traveling in wilderness for the challenge or the pure joy of such an experience. Values such as self-reliance are particularly important. You are responsible for yourself. Your actions are of consequence. Lessons of the wild teach us something about being human and what our relationship to nature is all about.




Wilderness serves as a haven from the pressure of our fast-paced industrial society. It is a place where we can seek relief from the noise and speed of machines, the confines of steel and concrete, and the crowding of people.

Educational Values

Wilderness is a teacher. Wilderness areas are living classrooms containing lessons waiting to be learned about us and our world.

In Wildness is the preservation of the world.
- Henry David Thoreau

In human culture is the preservation of wildness.
- Wendel Berry


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