What is wilderness stewardship?

While wilderness stewardship is primarily the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service, volunteers and citizens are also important participants in ensuring the protection of wilderness areas into the future. Stewardship by agencies and volunteer groups largely involves preserving wilderness character—the values for which a wilderness is designated. For agencies, this can mean managing activities including grazing, access to private lands, mining, fish and wildlife, cultural sites, fire, insects and disease, and impacts from wilderness visitors. For volunteer groups, this can mean helping to keep trails clear, cleaning up campsites, or monitoring weed outbreaks. Individual citizens can help keep wilderness areas wild by practicing Leave No Trace when visiting wilderness.

What is the minimum necessary wilderness stewardship philosophy?

To protect wilderness character in accordance with the Wilderness Act, the managing agencies adhere closely to the "minimum requirements" concept. Minimum means the least possible and a requirement is a necessity. So, in any situation where managers are considering actions to actively managing wilderness—a decision on whether to allow new scientific research, ignite a prescribed burn to minimize fuel buildup, or replace an aging trail bridge, for example—the minimum requirements concept is to:

  • Determine if any action is necessary in wilderness.
  • Then, only if action is deemed necessary, determine how to accomplish the action using the least amount (if any) of an otherwise prohibited means, such as a chainsaw or motor vehicle.

Although agencies and environmental advocacy groups can and do disagree on what constitutes good wilderness stewardship, a rationally-supported minimum requirements decision that adheres to this philosophy can minimize the chances of litigation. In fact, agency policies require the use of traditional tools, such as crosscut saws, and that employees acquire and maintain the skills to travel and work in wilderness. Similarly, volunteer groups who assist the agencies with trail work in wilderness prioritize traditional skills training for their volunteers.

What types of issues do wilderness managers deal with?

Land Management

  • How are wildlife and fish managed in wilderness?
  • How is commercial grazing managed in wilderness?
  • Is mining allowed in wilderness?
  • How can private landowners get access to private land within wilderness?
  • How are water resources, such as reservoirs, managed in wilderness?
  • How is fire managed in wilderness?
  • How are insects and disease controlled in wilderness?
  • Are tree cutting and planting allowed in wilderness?
  • What is being done to protect air quality in wilderness?
  • How are historic and archeological sites managed in wilderness?
  • Can scientific research be conducted in wilderness?
  • What is different about wilderness in Alaska?


  • What types of recreational opportunities does wilderness offer?
  • What are motorized equipment and mechanical transport and why are they prohibited in wilderness?
  • Why are some non-motorized devices such as hang gliders, parasails, pedal kayaks and bicycles not allowed in wilderness?
  • Why are drones prohibited in wilderness?
  • What is "Leave No Trace" camping?
  • What are managing agencies doing about wilderness education?
  • What restrictions are there on visiting wilderness?
  • Are cabins and lookouts allowed in wilderness?
  • Are trails, bridges, and signs used in wilderness?
  • Are outfitters and guides allowed in wilderness?
  • Is recreational livestock grazing allowed in wilderness?
  • What about geocaching?
  • What are the most common violations of the law in wilderness?
  • What is the policy on aircraft flights over wilderness?
  • What is the policy on staging competitive events in wilderness?

Planning & Administration

  • What is the minimum necessary philosophy that guides wilderness management?
  • Are there differences in how agencies manages wilderness?
  • How do wilderness managers use science?
  • What future changes might affect wilderness management?

Who manages wilderness?

Four land management agencies, under two departments—the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture—have been given the awesome responsibility of managing the diverse National Wilderness Preservation System. While the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service each maintain their own specific management mission, all have been successful in finding ways to mesh their independent missions with wilderness management goals and objectives. 

Common to all wilderness-managing agencies is the guidance and direction that is provided by the Wilderness Act. Although other wilderness laws are followed when applicable, and each agency has its own wilderness policy, the Wilderness Act bonds theses agencies together in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of America's wilderness system.