The Soil toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at



Soil is one of the most fundamental building blocks upon which all life relies. Soil resources and their importance to the earth and its community of life are implied in the Wilderness Act of 1964, even though soil resources are not mentioned specifically. Protecting soil is a given if wilderness is to be managed “so as to preserve its natural conditions” as the Wilderness Act describes. Maintaining soils in a natural condition is necessary for a wilderness area to retain its “primeval character and influence” as also described in the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act, Section 2c, recognizes that natural conditions are not static. Ongoing slow and regular erosion is a natural phenomenon, as well as periodic large events from floods, slumps and slides; soils will continue to erode and aggrade. The effects of natural processes are not to be thought of in terms of good nor bad; they are events that shape the landscape, its flora and fauna, and the area’s wilderness character. But where human activity has accelerated these processes, degradation to wilderness character may be occurring and may require management intervention.

The Wilderness Act, states that wilderness is “... for the use and enjoyment of the American people ...” with “...opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation ...”. Thus, some impacts from human use of wilderness areas is acceptable; there can be no human use of an area without some impact to the biophysical environment. Those biophysical resources form the foundation from where recreational benefits arise, and though there will always be some impact to those foundational resources, of which soils form a principal foundation, wilderness must be managed to minimize recreational impacts to the greatest degree.

The forces of water and wind shape the topography of each wilderness and create mineral soil. Biological activity completes what is defined as soil; that is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, gasses, and liquids. In arid ecosystems there are organisms that live in the soil which form crusts, and we often think of those soil crusts as a feature of the soil.

The benefits of the wilderness resource include both social and biophysical resources; it’s Wilderness Character (Landres et al. 2008; Landres et al. 2005; Landres et al. in press). The qualities of wilderness character are described in the definition of wilderness found in Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act. Section 4(b) of the Act provides the mandate to “preserve the wilderness character of the area ...”. The five qualities of Wilderness Character are Untrammeled, Natural Quality, Undeveloped, and Outstanding Opportunities for Solitude or a Primitive and Unconfined type of Recreation, and Other Features of Value (Landres et al. 2015). Preserving these five qualities preserves wilderness character as a whole. Though the biophysical components of wilderness character, including soil, create the foundation on which the scenic and recreational opportunities in wilderness are based, of the five qualities of wilderness character, soil resource issues are most closely linked and directly relevant to the natural and untrammeled qualities of wilderness character, which will be discussed below in more detail.

The Natural Quality of Wilderness Character includes physical and biological resources. The Wilderness Act describes the natural quality it in this way “...retaining its primeval character and influence;;;”, and “...protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions...” These statements mean that physical and biological functions and processes are in a condition that is not influenced by intended or unintended effects of modern civilization (Landres et al. 2008:5). Natural conditions are not static, ecosystem change through natural processes is essential, but a natural ecosystem has only nominal influence from modern civilization. Soils in the wilderness are natural when they are not missing horizons, support flora within its natural range of variability, and are diminishing or building as the result of natural processes rather than human activity. Restoration may sometimes be necessary to return soils to the condition they would have been in prior to modern human activities.

The Untrammeled Quality of Wilderness Character is described by the Wilderness Act in this way: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man ...” The word untrammeled places unique restrictions on wilderness managers, requiring the wilderness ecosystem to be self-willed. That is, the conditions found in wilderness are not intentionally manipulated by human activity. Keeping it Wild 2 provides a working definition of the untrammeled quality which is summarized as: Wilderness ecological systems are unhindered and free from intentional actions of modern human control or manipulation. This principle applies to soil resources as well as other biophysical resources. Examples of manipulation of soil resources includes adding soil amendments to favor certain types of plant growth. However, sometimes trammeling (manipulation) may be necessary in wilderness to remediate severe impacts caused by human activity. For example, breaking up surface compaction from past motor vehicle use, or restoring the upper soil horizon during mine restoration. Intentional human manipulation of soil resources conflicts with the untrammeled quality of wilderness character. Only where necessary to maintain or restore degraded conditions, or where valid existing rights or special statutory provisions exist can management activities occur which manipulate soil resources.


Management Regulations, Policies, and Practices


  • FSM 2320, 2323.38 - Visitor Management to Protect Wildlife or Fish Resources through 2323.42 Policy
  • FSM 2500 - Watershed and Air Management