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The Wilderness Act of 1964 ( ) was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United Statesmarker, and protected some 9 million acres (36,000 km²) of federal land. The result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964.

The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

When Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, it created the National Wilderness Preservation System. The initial statutory wilderness areas, designated in the Act, comprised 9.1 million acres (37,000 km²) of national forest wilderness areas in the United States of Americamarker previously protected by administrative orders.


Today, the Wilderness System comprises over 106 million acres (429,000 km²) involving federal lands administered by four agencies:

The National Wilderness Preservation System:
Area Administered by each Federal Agency (July 2004)
Agency Wilderness area Agency land

designated wilderness
National Park Service 43,616,250 acres (176,508 km²) 56%
U.S. Forest Service 34,867,591 acres (141,104 km²) 18%
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 20,699,108 acres (83,766 km²) 22%
Bureau of Land Management 6,512,227 acres (26,354 km²) 2%
Total 107,436,608 acres (427,733 km²) 16%

Legal framework

The most important thing about the Wilderness Act is that when Congress designates each wilderness area, it includes a very specific boundary line—in statutory law. Once a wilderness area has been added to the System, its protection and boundary can only be altered by another act of Congress. That places a heavy burden on anyone who, all through the future, may propose some change.

The basics of the program set out in the Wilderness Act are straightforward:

  • The lands protected as wilderness are areas of our public lands.
  • Wilderness designation is a protective overlay Congress applies to selected portions of national forest, parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands.
  • Within wilderness areas, we strive to restrain human influences so that ecosystems [the Wilderness Act, however, makes no specific mention of ecosystems] can change over time in their own way, free, as much as possible, from human manipulation. In these areas, as the Wilderness Act puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”—untrammeled meaning the forces of nature operate unrestrained and unaltered.
  • Wilderness areas serve multiple uses. But the law limits uses to those consistent with the Wilderness Act mandate that each wilderness area be administered to preserve the “wilderness character of the area.” For example, these areas protect watershed and clean-water supplies vital to downstream municipalities and agriculture, as well as habitat supporting diverse wildlife, including endangered species, while logging and oil and gas drilling are prohibited.
  • Along with many other uses for the American people, wilderness areas are popular for diverse kinds of outdoor recreation—but without motorized or mechanical vehicles or equipment.
  • The Wilderness Act was reinterpreted by the Administration in 1986 to ban bicycles from Wilderness areas, which led to the current vocal opposition from mountain bikers to the opening of new Wilderness areas.

Future legislation

Congress considers additional proposals every year, some recommended by federal agencies and many proposed by grassroots conservation and sportsmen’s organizations.

Congressional bills are pending to designate new wilderness areas in Utah, Colorado, Washington (State), California, Virginia, Idaho, West Virginia and New Hampshire. Grassroots coalitions are working with local congressional delegations on legislative proposals for additional wilderness areas, including Vermont, southern Arizona, national grasslands in South Dakota, Rocky Mountain peaks of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended new wilderness designations, which citizen groups may propose to expand.


  • This article is adapted from

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