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  1. What is wilderness?
  2. Where is wilderness?
  3. How is wilderness designated?
  4. When was wilderness established?
  5. Why was wilderness established?
  6. What are some benefits of wilderness?
  7. What are some threats to wilderness?
  8. Who manages wilderness?
  9. Why manage wilderness?
  10. What is wilderness management?
  11. How is wilderness designation different from other federal public land designations?
  12. How does wilderness designation affect visitors?
  13. Why is it important that the public is aware of the National Wilderness Preservation System?
  14. Where can more information about wilderness be obtained?


What is wilderness?

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as,

  • “… 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 ....”
  • …an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
  • “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man ’s work substantially unnoticeable …”

Wilderness is the land that was - wild land beyond the frontier . . . land that shaped the growth of the Nation and the character of its people. Wilderness is the land that is - rare, wild places where one can retreat from civilization, reconnect with the Earth, and find healing, meaning and significance. In Wilderness a tree can rot where it falls, a waterfall can pour its curve without 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 and mechanized civilization.

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Where is wilderness?

Wilderness areas are found in 44 states with 54 percent found in Alaska. From the swamps of the southeast to the tundra in Alaska, from the hardwoods of the northeast to the deserts of the southwest, the System includes 662 areas and comprises nearly five percent of America’s land mass, totaling more than 105 million acres.

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How is wilderness designated?

Federal lands qualifying as wilderness must be designated by Congress through legislation. In some cases, federal agencies recommend suitable lands. In other instances, citizens put forward proposals for consideration by Congress. The process culminates when the legislation is passed by Congress and is signed by the President. This secures “…for the American people of present and future generations an enduring resource of wilderness.”

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When was wilderness established?

In 1964, our nation’s leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. The Wilderness Act was signed into law on September 3, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and is the guiding piece of legislation for all wilderness areas.

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Why was wilderness established?

The great western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were inspired by the untamed beauty of wilderness that became the forge upon which our uniquely American national character was created. But after just 200 years, the essential wildness of America virtually disappeared. As Americans realized that the long-term health and welfare of the nation were at risk, a vision for conservation emerged. The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 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 land designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…” The Wilderness Act secured for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

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What are some benefits of wilderness?

Wilderness contributes to the ecologic, economic and social health and well being of our citizens, our country and our world. The benefits these areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and are highly valued.

  • Water and Air –Americans value wilderness most because these areas are sources of clean water and air. Today, citizens drink water that flows from Wilderness and breathe air that is replenished by the filtering action of plants and forests found there. These benefits transcend the boundaries of wilderness. Preserving wilderness preserves clean water and air.
  • Wildlife –Americans value the wildlife that is protected in wilderness, from grizzly bears to wildflowers. Wilderness protects natural processes, including natural disturbances like fire, which give rise to rich biodiversity so critical to the health of the global environment. Preserving wilderness preserves wildlife.
  • Recreation –Wilderness was created for the use and enjoyment of the American people. Yearly, more than 12 million people visit Wilderness to hike, ride horses, hunt, fish, ski, float rivers, take pictures and stargaze. Many visitors welcome Wilderness, not only for the self-reliant, challenging recreational experiences it provides, but as a haven, a refuge from our fast-paced, developed society – a place to reconnect with oneself and with the land. In the quiet of Wilderness one can hear 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. Going to Wilderness is like going home. Wilderness is a haven for self-discovery and rejuvenation. Preserving the integrity of wilderness preserves its unique recreational value.
  • Economics –Wilderness areas have a positive impact on local and regional economies. Counties with wilderness generally have higher income and employment growth rates. From sales to service, the economic benefits of wilderness influence every avenue of business that relies on this resource. Preserving wilderness helps to preserve a healthy economy.
  • Legacy – A uniquely American idea, Wilderness is part of our heritage and passed as a legacy to our children. Americans from all walks of life value the wilderness legacy. This legacy is passed on from generation to generation by many who will never visit wilderness, yet value its undisturbed quality. For many Americans, just knowing Wilderness is there inspires pride and a sense of responsibility. Preserving wilderness character preserves our wilderness legacy.

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What are some threats to wilderness?

The value of wilderness depends on the degree to which it remains undeveloped, a contrast to the highly developed world in which most of us live. However, designating areas as Wilderness does not ensure sanctuary from events that threaten wild character. Even the ecosystems in these most protected of public lands are threatened.

  • Fire Suppression: Huge expanses of Wilderness have experienced profound and devastating changes because of fire suppression. When fire occurs naturally in Wilderness, it gives rise to rich biological patterns and distribution of plants and animals. When fire is suppressed, unnatural species and quantities of plants and trees take over the landscape. Although we know more about fire and the effects of its management in Wilderness, restoring natural fire over large areas and hundreds of years is a formidable management challenge, fiscally, ecologically, politically and socially.
  • Invasive Species: Forty-six percent of all federally-listed threatened and endangered species are considered at risk primarily due to competition with or predation by invasive or exotic species. Nonnative or alien species of plants, animals and insects are invading, displacing and destroying native species in Wilderness Areas all across the country. Nearly every Wilderness suffers the harmful impacts of invasive species and considerable resources are needed to address this pervasive and complicated problem.
  • Recreational Use: The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave Wilderness managers a difficult and challenging mandate. Wilderness Areas are to be kept in a wild and natural state relatively free of human influence and control while, at the same time, providing for their use and enjoyment. Recreational wilderness use has increased 10-fold in the past 40 years and more than 12 million people visit Wilderness each year. Visitors are often unaware that heavy and highly concentrated use of sensitive areas is one of the greatest threats to the natural quality of wilderness. Too many places in some Wilderness Areas have turned into compacted, erosion-prone places, stripped of vegetation and topsoil. Intense and persistent impacts disrupt natural systems that sensitive plants and animals rely on. Recovery of these natural systems can be slow or irreversible as many Wilderness Areas are located at high elevations or in deserts – naturally stressed and less resilient ecosystems. We are in danger of losing the wild from Wilderness, of loving it to death. We must increase the ranks of skilled and equipped volunteer Wilderness citizen stewards to provide the on-the-ground presence needed to teach visitors how to enjoy Wilderness while preserving its natural character, to monitor changes in Wilderness conditions and use, and to restore Wilderness character.
  • Public Awareness: The United States population has grown from 192 million in 1964, when the Wilderness Act was passed, to almost 291 million people today, and is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2000, 80 percent of Americans lived in metropolitan areas. The result of these shifts and increasing diversity is a growing disconnect between people and Wilderness. Many have a poor understanding of what Wilderness is, how it shaped our nation and how they benefit from it whether or not they ever visit a Wilderness Area. Surveys of public opinion taken over the past four years by commercial polling firms, the media, and the federal government consistently find that Americans who know about Wilderness value it tremendously. Research also shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans are currently unaware of the existing Wilderness System and its values. A concerted effort must be made to reconnect Americans with their Wilderness heritage and to provide citizens from diverse demographic and ethnic groups with the information they need to be informed voters and participants in Wilderness decisions.

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Who manages wilderness?

Four agencies manage the National Wilderness Preservation System including the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Wilderness, designated by Congress, is a layer of protection placed on top of the original federal land designation. Although federal agencies are legally responsible for managing Wilderness areas, all citizens have a role and responsibility.

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Why manage wilderness?

When the National Wilderness Preservation System was first established in 1964, it was believed that once a line was drawn around an area and designated as wilderness it would be preserved forever. Today, we know that with the kinds of pressures descending on wilderness, a “no-management” approach does not protect wilderness characteristics and values. Wilderness must be actively managed to ensure its integrity.

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What is wilderness management?

Wilderness management is essentially the regulation of human use and internal and external influences to preserve an area’s naturalness and solitude. Wilderness management or stewardship includes planning and implementing visitor education and, when necessary, rules, regulations, and visitor management to ensure the quality, and integrity of these protected lands. Wilderness stewardship also includes the management of trails and signs, treatment of invasive species, and development of plans to guide the management of fire in these areas. Wilderness managers are required by law to manage wilderness for future generations, to ensure that these places remain forever wild.

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How is wilderness designation different from other federal public land designations?

Wild, undeveloped federal lands, often called “backcountry”, are not immune from susceptible to development, road building, and off-road vehicular use. These areas are protected only by administrative regulations that administrators can change. By contrast, designating an area as “Wilderness” ensures protection from development by law “for the permanent good of the whole people.” Designated wilderness is the highest level of protection for federal lands. The Wilderness Act prohibits permanent roads and commercial enterprises, except commercial services that may provide for recreational or other purposes of the Wilderness Act. Most wilderness areas do not allow motorized equipment, motor vehicles, mechanical transport, temporary roads, permanent structures or installations (with exceptions provided for in Alaska).Wilderness areas are to be primarily affected by the forces of nature, though the Wilderness Act does acknowledge the need to provide for human health and safety, protect private property, control insect infestations, and fight fires within the area. Wilderness areas are managed under the direction of the Wilderness Act, subsequent legislation (such as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), and agency policy.

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How does wilderness designation affect visitors?

Wilderness areas are places where humility and respect play a role in both individual and management activities. People can recreate in wilderness, though in most places individuals do so without mechanical transport. Visitors may hike, fish, camp, watch wildlife, photograph, or hunt (where legally authorized), ride horses or float rivers. Many visitors to public lands never enter a wilderness area, yet they enjoy wilderness as a scenic backdrop to developed areas and as a legacy they can pass on to their children.

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Why is it important that the public is aware of the National Wilderness Preservation System?

National studies show that while Americans overwhelmingly support wilderness, few people know what designated wilderness is, how they benefit from it whether they visit or not, or how these public lands should be managed. Yet Americans guide both wilderness designation and management through their representatives in Congress and in public comments to agency managers. To be informed constituents and stewards of federal public lands, Americans need to know the how and why of wilderness.

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Where can I get more information about wilderness?

Visit www.wilderness.net to find out more about wilderness. Through this site you will find descriptions of all wilderness areas, relevant legislation and legislative history, current wilderness issues, scientific research, and contacts.

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