"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts...There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life."
--Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
Wilderness is an integral part of the American experience, and includes natural lands of great beauty and character that remain in their natural state and are relatively undisturbed.
The 1964 Wilderness Act (P.L. 88-577) defines wilderness as:
"...lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition..." Section 2(a)
"...an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man..." Section 2(c)
"...an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation..." Section 2(c)
"...generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..." Section 2(c)
"...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." Section 2(c)
"...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use." Section 4(b)
In 1964, federal legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Wilderness Preservation System. Its purpose was and remains to "secure for the American poeple of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." This landmark legislation permanently protected some of the most natural, undisturbed, and remarakable places in America.
Lands suitable for wilderness deignation are identified by federal agencies, environmental groups, and private citizens. Proposed areas are forwarded to Congress for consideration. The nomination process culminates when Congress passes legislation including the lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System, and the legislation is signed by the President of the United States.
Thus far, 106 million acres in 44 states is protected. This totals about 5 percent of the U.S. Land mass--an area the size of Montana. Several different federal agencies, under the oversight of either the U.S. Department of the Interior or Department of Agriculture, share responsibility for monitoring and managing these lands. The agencies are:
Bureau of Land Management
The Bureau of Land Management manages about 270 million acres, 7,291,704 of which are Wilderness. Among other activities, the Bureau conserves these lands and their historical and cultural resources for the public's use and enjoyment.
Fish and Wildlife Service
The Fish and Wildlife Service conserves the nation's wild animals and their habitats by managing a system of more than 500 national wildlife refuges and other areas, totaling about 91 million acres of land and water, 20,699,108 of which are Wilderness.
The Forest Service manages national forests and grasslands. It conducts forestry research and works with forest managers on state and private lands. The Forest Service oversees nearly 200 million acres of national forest and other lands, 34,867,591 of which are Wilderness.
National Park Service
The National Park Service was established to protect the nation's natural, historical, and cultural resources and to provide places for recreation. The Park Service manages 51 national parks and more than 300 national monuments, historic sites, memorials, seashores, and battlefields. It oversees 43,650,796 acres of Wilderness.
Facts at a Glance
Number of Wilderness Areas: 698 wilderness areas
Smallest Wilderness: Pelican Island, Florida (5 acres)
Largest Wilderness: Wrangell-Saint Elias, Alaska (9,078,675 acres)
Largest Wilderness complex (contiguous Wilderness acreage): Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wildernesses, Alaska (12,743,329 acres)
Largest Wilderness complex (contiguous Wilderness acreage) in the contiguous United States: Frank Church-River of No Return
and Gospel-Hump Wildernesses, Idaho (2,572,553 acres)
Second largest Wilderness complex (contiguous Wilderness acreage) in the contiguous United States: Wildernesses in central California consisting of the southern half of the Yosemite Wilderness and the Ansel Adams, Dinkey Lakes, John Muir, Monarch, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Golden Trout, and South Sierra Wildernesses (2,255,383 acres)
States with the most Wilderness: Alaska, California, Arizona, Washington, Idaho
Agency managing the most Wildernesses: U.S. Forest Service
Agency managing the most Wilderness acres: National Park Service
Newest Wilderness: Ojito Wilderness, New Mexico (11,183 acres), designated on 10/26/05 by Public Law 109-94
Additional Web-Based Resources
University of Montana Wilderness Institute
U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute