Key Laws

A multitude of laws and administrative policies affect wilderness management today. Below are a few of the most important acts of Congress, listed in chronological order, relating to management of the National Wilderness Preservation System. While some acts directly affect the wilderness system or specific areas within the system, others prescribe measures that influence wilderness management. The intent and direction of all applicable laws must be met in wilderness. To download copies of these and other wilderness-related laws, visit the law library

General Mining Act (1872)

The General Mining Act was enacted to promote the development of mining resources in the United States. This act declared that public lands are free and open to mineral purchase and exploration, and all lands with valuable mineral deposits are open for occupancy. This act established the procedure for mining claims and operations. Though it is over 100 years old, this act still influences management in some wilderness areas with mineral resources.

Forest Service Organic Act (1897)

The Forest Service Organic Act established the procedure to set aside federal forest reserves, which later became national forests. The bill was enacted to secure favorable conditions of water flows and produce a continuous supply of timber to meet the needs of U.S. citizens.

Antiquities Act (1906); National Historic Preservation Act (1966); and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979)

The Antiquities Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and the Archeological Resources Protection Act provide the statutory basis for protecting and managing heritage resources on federal lands. Policies derived from this legal direction seek to balance the need for protecting heritage resources with the differing mandate in the Wilderness Act to eliminate structures which do not have a legitimate administrative need.

National Park Service Organic Act (1916)

The National Park Service Organic Act established the National Park Service. The bill was enacted to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife to provide for enjoyment of these features by the American public.

Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act (1960)

Following World War II, the demand for forest products increased dramatically. Pressure for various uses of national forest land led Congress to pass the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act. Congress defined 5 administrative responsibilities for the Forest Service: recreation, timber, grazing, watershed, wildlife habitat. "Multiple Use" meant that forests, in general, cannot be used exclusively for one purpose but certain areas within a forest can be.

Wilderness Act (1964)

The Wilderness Act initially protected 54 wilderness areas (9.1 million acres) by withdrawing them from standard multiple use management and established a process for adding new lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Lands classified as wilderness through the Wilderness Act could be under jurisdiction of the Forest Service, National Park Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service. The Bureau of Land Management began managing wilderness with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976. With some exceptions, prohibitions include closure to motorized and mechanized vehicles, timber harvest, new grazing and mining activity, or any other kind of development.

National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (1966) and National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act (1997)

The National Wildlife Refuge System Acts provided authority, guidelines, and directives for the Fish and Wildlife Service to improve the National Wildlife Refuge System. Furthermore, the Improvement Act of 1997 provided a new statutory mission and directed that the Refuge System be managed as a national system of lands and waters devoted to conserving wildlife and maintaining biological integrity of ecosystems. It also required comprehensive conservation planning to guide management of the Refuge System, directed the involvement of private citizens in land management decisions, and provided that compatible wildlife-dependent recreation is a legitimate and appropriate use that should receive priority in refuge planning and management.

Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968)

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act established a national system of rivers to be preserved in free-flowing condition, with their immediate environments protected. Congress selected certain rivers that possess outstandingly remarkable outdoor values. They established an initial system of eight rivers and set up methods and procedures for adding new rivers to the system. There are three classifications of rivers in the system: wild, scenic, or recreational, depending on the level of development near the stretch of river. Wild and Scenic Rivers often flow through wilderness areas or their headwaters originate within wilderness.

National Environmental Policy Act (1969, 1975, 1982)

The National Environmental Policy Act (1969, 1975, 1982) establishes the legal foundation requiring federal agencies to consider all actions and programs utilizing a systematic, interdisciplinary approach to evaluate the environmental effects of the proposed action. Furthermore, agencies must identify environmental impacts which cannot be avoided. Agencies must also consider alternatives to the proposed action, as well as the relationship between local, short-term uses of man’s environment and enhancement of long-term productivity. They must also identify and consider irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources involved in the proposed action. One prominent provision of this act directs all federal agencies to prepare Environmental Impact Statements before development on public lands and requires public involvement on land management plans and issues. The Minimum Requirements Analysis process, which helps guide decision-making in wilderness areas, is sometimes used to inform Environmental Impact Statements.

Clean Air Act (1963, 1966, 1970, 1977, 1990)

In addition to establishing human health and welfare standards, the Clean Air Act (as amended) established Class I areas. These Class I areas are those wildernesses and national parks larger than 5000 or 6000 acres, respectively, that were in existence in 1977. The Class I designation affords these areas special protection from human-caused degradation of air quality related values by air pollution. Air quality related values vary by wilderness, but typically include visibility, flora, fauna, water, and soils.

Wilderness and air quality managers work closely with state air regulators, EPA, and stakeholders to protect Class I wildernesses from adverse impacts from new pollution sources under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration program of the Clean Air Act. Managers can also certify existing impairment in Class I areas from existing sources, thereby obligating the states to create a plan to clean up the pollution sources. The Clean Air Act also requires states to develop plans to reduce haze to natural background levels by the year 2064. Extensive monitoring of air quality related values in wilderness is carried out across the country to help fulfill land manager's responsibility under the Clean Air Act.

Clean Water Act (1948, 1972, 1977, 1987)

Upland and mountain wilderness areas often provide sources of clean water orginating in the natural environments. Downstream, swamp, desert, and coastal wilderness may be subject to the effects of water pollution from upstream sources. Evolution of Clean Water Act programs over the last decade has included a shift from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to more holistic watershed-based strategies. Under the watershed approach equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones. A full array of issues are addressed, not just those subject to Clean Water Act regulatory authority. Involvement of stakeholder groups in the development and implementation of strategies for achieving and maintaining state water quality and other environmental goals is a hallmark of this approach.

Endangered Species Acts (1973); and (1978, 1982)

The Endangered Species Act was enacted to provide a program for the conservation of wildlife and plant species that are threatened or endangered with extinction, many of which live within wilderness areas. The Act recognizes that several species of plants are in danger of extinction, and these species are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value. The act sets up specific procedures to determine which plant and animal species are added or removed from protective status. It also sets up cooperative programs with states and civil penalties for violation of the act. Subsequent amendments to this act were made in 1978 and 1982.

The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (1974); (as amended by the National Forest Management Act (1976))

The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act recognizes that the management of the nation's renewable resources is very complex and changes with time. The law requires the assessment, planning, and monitoring of national forest resources with a periodic display for Congress that will allow that body to select and direct the goods and services to be produced from the nation's forests. These two acts also require an ecosystem approach to planning that views wilderness areas as a part of the whole. They also state that coordination with other land managing agencies and private land owners must be part of the planning and management discussion.

Public Law 93-622 (Known as the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act) (1975)

During the debates leading up to passage of this law the Forest Service took the position that few if any areas in the east qualified as wilderness because they were not 'pristine' or 'untouched'. Congress did not accept this argument and directed the Forest Service to let go of this doctrine and follow through with inventory and recommendation of lands for Congress to consider designating as wilderness. Congress directed the National Park Service to do the same.

The Eastern Wilderness Areas Act added 16 National Forest areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System and directed that 17 areas should be studied in eastern National Forests, and within 5 years, the Secretary of Agriculture should recommend additions to the wilderness system. Condemnation authority was provided. Congress debated the issue of adding areas that had been severely modified. They chose to do so and declined to establish a separate "Eastern Wilderness" category. Wilderness areas east of the Mississippi are often referred to as "wilderness in the East."

National Forest Management Act (1976)

The National Forest Management Act is the result of a lawsuit filed against the Forest Service for its clearcutting practices in West Virginia. Congress required the Forest Service to harvest timber on a sustained yield basis and set guidelines for clearcutting. It also directed the Forest Service to address details on land use planning through ten-year forest plans that include direction for wilderness management.

Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) (1976)

Section 603 of FLPMA authorized the Bureau of Land Management to classify and recommend suitable Bureau of Land Management lands for wilderness designation. FLPMA designates the Bureau of Land Management as the fourth federal agency to manage wilderness.

Endangered American Wilderness Act (1978)

The Endangered American Wilderness Act designates certain undeveloped national forest lands as wilderness and also includes the Oregon Omnibus Wilderness Act of 1978. Many wilderness advocates who fought for this law did so with the idea it corrected oversights of the Forest Service RARE I process and correctly added areas to the NWPS that the Forest Service didn't recommend. Hence the "Endangered" name for the legislation. By passing the Endangered Wilderness Act, Congress further established that areas previously modified or influenced by man should not be precluded from wilderness designation, nor should roadless areas near major cities since they provide primitive recreation opportunities close to population concentrations.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (1980)

ANILCA provided for the designation and conservation of certain public lands in Alaska. The bill added about 56 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 35 areas administered by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and  Forest Service. Several wild and scenic rivers were also added to the national system. It was the intent of Congress to preserve unrivaled scenic and geological values associated with natural landscapes and to preserve vast unaltered arctic tundra, boreal forest, and coastal rainforest ecosystems.

Another major purpose was to protect wildlife habitat for species dependent on large undeveloped areas. In 1990 the Tongass Timber Reform Act amended ANILCA to protect certain lands in the Tongass National Forest by modifying certain long-term timber contracts. 

Colorado Wilderness Act (1980)

This is a comprehensive Colorado wilderness law adding areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. It is especially important because the Congress referred to House Committee Report 96-617 for interpretation of the 64 Wilderness Act management direction on livestock grazing that applies to all National Forest wilderness areas. The law is particularly important because it specifies that the provisions of the Wilderness Act relating to grazing in National Forests will be interpreted and administered according to guidelines in the House Committee Report (96-617). It also prohibits buffer zones around wilderness areas and directed a review of management policies affecting Colorado's wilderness areas. Further this Act contained RARE II sufficiency and Release language.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (1990)

The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act is to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities in areas of employment, transportation, and communication. It also protects people with disabilities from the discriminatory aspects of architecture, over protective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities. This Act amends the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires federal agencies to make facilities and programs accessible. ADA extends the mandate to all state and local governments and any facility or program receiving government funding. The Rehabilitation Act, ADA, and the Wilderness Act appear to differ affectedly if read literally without applying some common sense.

The latter proposes to protect natural and undeveloped landscape values for future generations. ADA seeks to eliminate all discrimination to programs and facilities by tailoring facilities and programs to be universally accessible. The key point is that equal access will be provided and facilities will be 'universally accessible' by not discriminating against people with disabilities. Wheelchairs (as defined by the law) are allowed in wilderness, and the Forest Service does not install barriers to their use when constructing or reconstructing trails or bridges in wilderness. Trail standards are differentially applicable between wilderness and non-wilderness areas. This approach allows equal access to all but does not alter the character of the wilderness.