The Wilderness Management Planning toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. Toolboxes are comprehensively reviewed and updated approximately every three years, with intermittent small updates and additions in the interim. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at Date of last update: 11/17/2018.


Planning Overview

Planning for Wilderness is to translate the Wilderness Act, enabling legislation and agency policy into direction for a specific area. All three serve as sideboards while developing your Wilderness Plan. A wilderness management plan guides the preservation, management, and use of the wilderness to ensure that wilderness is unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.

If we look to the Wilderness Act, we'll find in sections 4 (b) and 2 (a) that the Act gives us our marching orders for what we are supposed to be doing and a key thing the Wilderness Act says is that wildernesses shall be administrated for the protection of the area and preservation of its wilderness character. To do this you must have a well thought out plan. You need to develop a wilderness planning document using a logical process for identifying, implementing and monitoring appropriate management actions in wilderness.

Specific policies and guidance vary between the four wilderness management agencies, be sure to follow them; however, all require some kind of problem solving through a planning process. Plans form the basis for informed decisions and are the building block for budget proposals.

There are many planning processes to help you develop a plan. The key is to pick the one that works best for your situation and stick to it. A good planning process will result in a good wilderness plan. Examples of planning processes will are included in this toolbox, such as Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC), Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) and the Wilderness Stewardship Planning Framework (WSPF).

There are several names used for these planning documents. You will hear them referred to as a Wilderness Management Plan, Wilderness Stewardship Plan, Backcountry/ Wilderness Management Plan and Wilderness Strategy to name a few. Don't be confused, they are all referring to the same type of document.

Planning should be transparent and involve everyone; an interdisciplinary team, management, staff, stakeholders and the general public. This gets people talking about Wilderness and builds ownership when it comes time to implement the plan. Plans identify direction for administrative actions as well as public use. Plans establish management direction and actions to best preserve and protect the wilderness resource while at the same time providing opportunities for wilderness experiences.

Plans should address all components of wilderness in an integrated fashion. Wilderness contains many basic resources---air, water, wildlife, fish, cultural sites, soil, vegetation, people...we need to tie these together into one Wilderness in order to manage wilderness as a whole.

This toolbox provides agency policy, guidance, examples of processes and plans, and identifies training opportunities.

Why Plan?

Many ask why we need a wilderness management plan. There are many reasons. Overall, it gives the agency the opportunity to look to the future and identify the vision, goals, and objectives for each wilderness area.

A plan identifies complex issues and helps set reasonable, lawful, practical and implementable actions. It provides quality guidance for the ground managers and staff with actions that are adequate and appropriate to meet goals and objectives for both day to day and long term management.

It sets forth the accountability, consistency and continuity for the long term stewardship of your wilderness area and assures everyone on the same page. Issues don't go away by ignoring them, its best not to wait until something happens. That only leads to "management by the seat of your pants" or "putting out the wildfires". Issues need to be addressed and resolved in a clear and logical way.

Wilderness plans provide a link to other overall planning efforts such as General Management Plans, Comprehensive Conservation Plans, Forest Plans, Resource Management Plans, as well as can serve as an umbrella for more specific plans such as Fire Management, Commercial Services, Emergency Operations etc.

A plan defines our needs, identifies components of our wilderness stewardship program and sets the course of action in preserving wilderness character over the long run. It outlines what our resources are, what the desired conditions are, what to watch for to notice changes and plots a course if action is determined necessary.

Planning processes raise the awareness of wilderness stewardship among the public, asks for their input, and elicits ownership once the plan is in place. It can identify. Wilderness is everybody's so that everyone works as a team on common ground for the same purpose.

The bottom line is to provide for the use and enjoyment as wilderness and preserve and protect the Wilderness resource. A wilderness management plan help is the guide to achieve that for individual areas.

Planning is a daunting task and a challenge at times. They take time, effort and a lot of thought. However, if done well, Wilderness Management Plans set the direction and standards for the future and at the same time be a dynamic document for implementing actions.

Management Guidelines, Processes, Templates and Handbooks


Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC)


Wilderness Planning Process Overview


Wilderness planning is the art of understanding the character of the wilderness, translating it into desired conditions, monitoring the wilderness resource, and implementing actions to protect natural conditions. Wilderness planning is the essential tool developed by managers, scientists, and the public to insure that the mandates of The Wilderness Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation are implemented.

The term "wilderness planning" is most commonly associated with the task of producing a wilderness plan. However, wilderness planning involves many important components or steps and begins long before the plan is written and continues long afterwards. In fact successful wilderness planning begins with elements of the planning process that are pre-work for the actual plan. These elements include: 1) determining the need for change, 2) inventorying conditions, and, 3) involving the public.

The planning process is really a circle or loop that never ends. Once indicators, standards and zones are established and management actions have been implemented it is necessary to monitor conditions to determine if the desired conditions are being attained. If conditions are not me, management actions are adjusted using "adaptive management" prescriptions described in the plan. Once again monitoring determines if the actions are effective.

The Planning Process

Wilderness planning processes have been developed by research scientists and managers and implemented and modified for many years. Various processes such as Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC), Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP), and Visitor Impact Monitoring (VIM) exist and have somewhat different focus but all utilize a similar set of elements to portray the loop process described above.

All wilderness planning processes address the need for establishing a "recreation carrying capacity" by relating visitor use to visitor caused impacts to the social, biological, and physical components of the wilderness resource. Carrying capacity is determined not just on the basis of how many people at one time can be in or pass through an area, but by identifying the amount, location, timing, and type of use and relating it to existing and desired conditions for the wilderness resource. Management actions related to visitor use and experience are developed to maintain or improve natural conditions and provide opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.

Planning Outline
Element 1: Building a Foundation
  • identifying characteristics and issues
  • establishing a process
  • building an interdisciplinary team
  • establishing a timeline

Element 2: Public Involvement
  • Identifying the audience and participants
  • Strategies and Tactics for meaningful participation

Element 3: Desired Condition
  • Need for Change
  • Wilderness Character

Element 4: Inventory Conditions
  • Likely indicators
  • Information on hand
  • Data gaps
  • Collection, analysis, and use of data

Element 5: Zoning
  • Determine the need
  • Appropriate criteria

Element 6: Indicators
  • Meaningful measures

Element 7: Standards
  • Limits on impairment or degradation of wilderness character
  • Objectives for management

Element 8: Management Actions
  • Adaptive management prescriptions

Element 9: Monitoring
  • Conditions
  • Trends
  • Reporting


Wilderness Stewardship Planning Handbook

Examples of Wilderness Plans and Supporting Documents

Training, Resource Materials, Data Centers and References

Training Courses

Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center

University of Montana Wilderness Management Distance Education Program (WMDEP)

Resource Materials



Data Centers


  • Dawson, C. P. & Hendee, J. C. (2009). Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values (4rd ed.). Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.