How Wilderness Becomes Wilderness

Have you ever wondered how a wilderness area becomes designated? It's a multi-step process that involves various stakeholders, and it all starts with a recommendation.

  1. Recommendation: State governments, federal land management agencies, organized groups, or even individual citizens can propose an area for wilderness designation.
  2. Congressional Action: Congress must enact wilderness legislation based on the recommendation. Both the House and Senate must agree.
  3. Presidential Signature: Once Congress passes the legislation, the President of the United States signs it into law.
  4. Designation: After all these steps, the wilderness is officially designated, ensuring its protection and preservation for generations to come.

Goose-neck bend in a river

The Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, for example, was designated in 2019 and has its roots in designation efforts going as far back as the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2007.

Land Swaps

Can wilderness areas be de-designated? While there has never yet been a wholesale removal of a wilderness from the National Wilderness Preservation System, land swaps and boundary adjustments are neither frequent nor uncommon. The Wilderness Act does include language allowing development of "reservoirs, water-conservation works, power projects, transmission line, and other facilities needed in the public interest..." In some cases when such public interest developments have occurred, Congress has removed the area in question from the wilderness and added an equal or greater number of acres to the same wilderness or to a wilderness nearby. While some argue that not all wilderness acres are equal, these types of land swaps can both impact and benefit wilderness character, depending on each unique situation.

Why Some Wildlands Are Not Designated as Wilderness

It takes an act of Congress to designate an area as wilderness. However, Congress must take the opinions of all American citizens into consideration when debating whether or not to designate an area as wilderness. As you might expect, this process can take years, even decades. For example, in the National Park Service, recommendations dating back to the late 1970s still exist for ten national parks, five national monuments, and one national seashore.

In the Fish and Wildlife Service, 21 recommendations exist, the majority of which were submitted to Congress in 1974. This is why some lands that have been recommended to Congress have been designated as wilderness and some lands, such as areas in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, have not. In other cases, lands studied by the land management agencies were not considered suitable for wilderness designation. 

Some practical questions used to determine suitability include:

  • Is the area 5,000 acres in size or larger? Or a roadless island?

  • Does the area generally appear to be natural, and is human presence relatively unnoticeable?

  • Does the area offer the opportunity for primitive and unconfined recreational activities like camping, hiking, and skiing?

  • Does it provide opportunities for solitude?

  • Does the area contain features of ecologicalgeologicalscientificeducationalscenic/aesthetic, or historical/cultural significance?

Some wildlands that do not meet the criteria for suitability as wilderness are protected as national parks, national forests, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national conservation areas, national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails. 

Other Classifications of Public Land

Hikers on the banks of a river

The Nez Perce National Historic Trail, shown above, crosses the Missouri Wild and Scenic River as it flows through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

Land classification can be thought of as a continuous spectrum of land types ranging from urbanized to wild. Internationally, the IUCN has developed universal categories that apply to different types of protected areas world-wide. Wilderness areas are one type of protected area listed under the IUCN classification system.

In the United States, as well as in other countries, all portions of the lands spectrum—from developed to free-willed—are important, and many land classifications for public lands compliment wilderness. Many of these classifications better fit the recreation desires of diverse users and are excellent alternatives to visiting wilderness. Provided below are some examples of other types of public lands.

Proposed and/or Recommended Wilderness (Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service)

Although individual agency definitions of the terms "proposed" and "recommended" often mean slightly different things, lands with these titles have been identified by the managing agency as being desirable for wilderness designation.

Wilderness Study Area (Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service)

Bureau of Land Management and National Forest System (Forest Service) Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) are designated by Congress for further study before final designation as wilderness. Fish and Wildlife Service WSAs are identified and established through the inventory component of a wilderness review and include all areas that are still undergoing the wilderness review process. These lands are managed in the same manner as designated wilderness, so that, if they become wilderness, their wilderness character is preserved.

National Forest Roadless Areas (Forest Service)

Millions of acres of wild, undeveloped land without roads exist on National Forest land outside of classified wilderness. They offer similar opportunities for wilderness recreation, and, in many cases, they also provide opportunities for recreational activities that are incompatible with wilderness, such as mountain biking and OHV use. These lands offer excellent alternatives to wilderness for primitive recreation.

National Trails System

A National Trail System was established by Congress in 1968 including three types of trails: (1) National Recreation Trails providing a wide variety of recreation uses near urban areas; (2) National Scenic Trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; (3) National Historic Trails, such as the Lewis and Clark Trail; and (4) side trails to connect recreation and scenic trails, and provide better access to them. Some of these national trails are in wilderness areas and many are on other public lands.

National Wild and Scenic Rivers

In 1968, Congress also established a national system of rivers to be preserved in freeflowing condition, with their immediate environments protected. There are now more than 200 rivers designated in the National Wild and Scenic River System. This includes tributary rivers and multiple segments of the same river. There are three classifications of rivers in the system: wild, scenic, or recreational, depending on the level of development near the stretch of river. A few states have passed legislation establishing wild and scenic rivers that are managed under state jurisdiction. Where wild and scenic rivers flow through wilderness areas, additional protection against water developments (which are allowed under the Wilderness Act but prohibited under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act) are afforded to these corridors and the wilderness lands surrounding them.

National Recreation Areas

In 1972, Congress designated the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the nation's first area of this kind. Since that time, National Recreation Areas have been designated around the country. Unlike wilderness areas, there is no one law guiding management of these areas; each one is unique. Also unlike wilderness, motorized equipment and other management actions are allowed, although the primary management objectives of these areas is for recreation.

Research Natural Areas

A system of Research Natural Areas exist throughout the country on public lands. Unlike wilderness areas, recreation is not a primary use in these areas, but they supplement the educational and scientific values of wilderness areas. These areas are intended to serve as gene pools for rare and endangered species and as examples of significant natural ecosystems. Like wilderness areas, they also serve as important outdoor laboratories to study natural systems.

Non-Federal Wilderness

Although most wilderness exists on federal lands, there are some examples of wilderness management under state or tribal ownership. Unfortunately, according to a 2008 International Journal of Wilderness article titled State-Designated Wilderness in the United States: A National Review, these occurrences are neither numerous nor well documented. Several shining examples, however, do exist. For example, the state of New York set aside a large area in the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Park, in 1892 to remain forever wild and to protect a valuable water source.

Today, nearly 20% of the Adirondack Park has been preserved as state wilderness. In 1979, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes designated the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, adjacent to the Mission Mountains Wilderness in Montana, "to preserve quiet and untamed areas for cultural and spiritual use." Recognizing the potential impacts of activities outside the Wilderness, in 1986 the tribe also established a wilderness buffer zone adjacent to the tribal wilderness to protect and preserve the integrity of the Tribal Wilderness. More information about state and tribal wilderness areas can be found in the State/Tribal Wilderness Toolbox.

Biosphere Reserve Program

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization established the Biosphere Reserve Program in 1973 to protect examples of major natural regions throughout the world, and provide opportunities for ecological research and education. In North America alone, there are 60 areas that have been identified as Biosphere Reserves.