Recreational Use of Wilderness
The Wilderness Act calls for "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" in wilderness. The challenge is to provide recreational opportunities while keeping wilderness an area "without permanent improvement or human habitation, an area "...where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Visitors must accept wilderness largely on its own terms, without modern facilities provided for their comfort or convenience.
Users must also accept certain risks, including possible dangers arising from weather conditions, physical features, and other natural phenomena, that are inherent in the various elements and conditions that comprise a wilderness experience and primitive methods of travel. Wilderness visitors enjoy camping, hiking, hunting, horse packing, fishing, climbing, canoeing, and many other wilderness-dependent activities.
Wilderness education has become a most important tool for increasing public awareness about wilderness management, affecting attitude and behavior changes, and developing an outdoor ethic. If people are aware of what wilderness is and how to visit and enjoy it without leaving impacts, there is a chance that they will behave appropriately.
The hope is that people, by their own actions, will preserve the aesthetic landscape, eliminate unnecessary resource damage, and gain a better understanding of the purpose of management plans and policies. Then, land management agencies need not rely completely on closures, regulations and law enforcement. Management can be anticipatory rather than reactive, and a traditional freedom of choice will be maintained in wild land recreation.
In wilderness, "...man himself is a visitor who does not remain." When visitors leave evidence of their journeys, the next visitor loses the sense of solitude and undisturbed recreation opportunities. Wilderness visitors can take responsibility for being unnoticed, leaving no trace. They should pack all trash out of the wilderness, use a lightweight stove instead of a fire, stay on designated trails in heavily-used areas, keep group size small, camp 200 feet or more from trails and water bodies, wash away from water sources, make sure that horses and stock do not damage campsites or overgraze areas, and leave cultural resources in place.
To protect the wilderness resource and preserve wilderness character, restrictions may be placed on group size, campsite location, or length of stay in individual wildernesses. Visitor education, trail design, and other non-regulatory measures would be tried before restrictions are imposed. Permits are required in some of the most popular and heavily-used wildernesses. They are necessary to preserve the area and to ensure that visitors are provided with a degree of solitude. Permits are either free or have a nominal processing fee. Saddle and pack stock are permitted in most wildernesses, as are non-motorized canoes, rafts, and kayaks.
In some wildernesses there may be local restrictions, such as prohibiting dogs or requiring that they be leashed in certain areas. Closure orders may also exist for some wildernesses. Currently, only ten wilderness areas are completely closed to human visitation. These areas are all island wildernesses managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and are closed to visitation because they protect sensitive wildlife habitats, such as migratory bird nesting grounds. Most closures, however, are temporary, such as short-term trail closures to prevent encounters with wildlife or protect visitor safety (ex. a bear feeding on a moose carcass near the trail; chemical treatement of weeds along a trail), seasonal closures during wildlife breeding times, or more long-term closures affecting areas severely damaged by disturbance (ex. areas damaged by catastrophic wildfire, areas that have sustained heavy damage due to recreational use).
Wilderness-oriented commercial services enable some sectors of the public to enjoy wilderness values and recreational experiences and may be necessary to fulfill the recreation purpose of wilderness. Activities such as outfitter and guide services for horseback, hiking, mountain climbing, fishing, hunting or river trips may be authorized if they are appropriate under the standards and guidelines contained in the wilderness management plan. Outfitters and guides are issued special use or commercial permits and are generally allowed to use temporary structures such as tents, hitch racks and corrals, but these structures must be removed after the season of use.
Horses, mules, llamas and other saddle and pack stock used by wilderness visitors may be allowed to graze in wilderness. When forage is inadequate, wilderness managers may require that weed-free feed be packed in. Additionally, each wilderness may set regulations on where visitors with stock can camp, where and how they can tethering their pack stock, how many stock can accompany a group of visitors, and the use of native feed and pellets. Wild horses and burros are considered part of the natural environment, if populations were established at the time of wilderness designation. Recreation livestock used by commercial outfitters and guides and their customers may be grazed under permit.