Wilderness Character

The Wilderness Character toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. Contact us to suggest new materials for inclusion.


This toolbox provides information for wilderness managers about wilderness character: what it is and why it’s important, how it’s used in wilderness stewardship, how changes to it can be monitored, and how threats to it can be mapped.

Understanding Wilderness Character

Our understanding of wilderness character as a unique resource that is fundamental to wilderness stewardship is relatively new, beginning in the early 2000s. Wilderness managers have long protected specific elements of wilderness (e.g., trails from becoming braided, campsites from becoming trashed) and they have long been concerned about “death by a thousand cuts” to wilderness. Wilderness character is a relatively simple way for mangers to understand how specific impacts fit into a broader context. Wilderness character also provides an effective way to communicate among agency staff and with the public about the goals and needs of wilderness stewardship.

According to legal scholars, preserving wilderness character is the primary legal requirement from the 1964 Wilderness Act and all subsequent wilderness legislation to the agencies that administer wilderness. If wilderness character is not being preserved, then the agencies are not fulfilling their legal mandate in their administration of wilderness. “Wilderness character” occurs four times in the Wilderness Act (once in Section 2(a), twice in Section 4(b), and once in Section 4(d)(3)) and all four times the Wilderness Act states that wilderness character “shall” be preserved or protected. While the Wilderness Act clearly allows a variety of uses in wilderness, the administering agencies are still legally required to preserve the wilderness character of the area. In 1983, Congress reasserted the primacy of preserving wilderness character, stating “The overriding principle guiding management of all wilderness areas, regardless of which agency administers them, is the Wilderness Act (Section 4(b)) mandate to preserve their wilderness character.”

Resources on the legal requirement to preserve wilderness character (arranged chronologically):

  • The Wilderness Act of 1964: its background and meaning. 1966. McCloskey, M. Oregon Law Review 45:288–321.
  • House Report 98-40 from the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, March 18, page 43. 1983. United States Congress.
  • Managing the balance of nature: The legal framework of wilderness management. 1988. Rohlf, D. and Honnold, D.L. Ecology Law Quarterly 15:249–279.
  • Changing views of what the wilderness system is all about. 1998. McCloskey, M. Denver University Law Review 76:369–381.
  • Defining wilderness: From McCloskey to legislative, administrative and judicial paradigms. 1999. Ochs, M.J. Denver University Law Review 76:659–679.
  • Untrammeled, wilderness character, and the challenges of wilderness preservation. 2002. Scott, D.W. Wild Earth 11(3/4):72–79.
  • Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values. 4th edition. 2009. C.P. Dawson and J.C. Hendee. Fulcrum Publishing. Golden, CO.
  • Wilderness and the courts. 2010. Appel, P.A. Stanford Environmental Law Journal 29:62-129.
  • The legal meaning of wilderness character. 2015. Nagel, J.C. International Journal of Wilderness 21(3):10-13.

Wilderness character is not defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act so to provide stewardship guidance to fulfill the Wilderness Act’s legal mandate, an interagency team (Keeping It Wild 2, 2015) defined it: "Wilderness character is a holistic concept based on the interaction of (1) biophysical environments primarily free from modern human manipulation and impact, (2) personal experiences in natural environments generally free from the encumbrances and signs of modern society, and (3) symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence that inspire human connection with nature. Taken together, these tangible and intangible values define wilderness character and distinguish wilderness from other all lands."

To operationalize this definition and link the concept of wilderness character directly to the statutory and tangible stewardship requirements of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the interagency team (Keeping It Wild 2, 2015) identified and defined five tangible “qualities” of wilderness character:

  • Untrammeled—wilderness ecological systems are unhindered and free from intentional actions of modern human control or manipulation
  • Natural—wilderness ecological systems are substantially free from the effects of modern civilization
  • Undeveloped—wilderness is essentially without structures or installations, the use of motors, or mechanical transport
  • Outstanding Opportunities for Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation—wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation
  • Other Features of Value—wilderness may have unique ecological, geological, cultural or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value

These five qualities of wilderness character provide an organizational structure to help improve wilderness stewardship at all administrative levels, from on-the-ground management to national policy review. In addition to the five tangible qualities focused on stewardship, it is important to recognize a 6th intangible quality of wilderness character to account for the broad symbolic meanings of wilderness to society and the feelings of humility, restraint, and connection with something larger and outside of the self, as well as the inspiration and spirituality that individuals derive from their wilderness experiences.

This definition and all six qualities apply to every wilderness regardless of administering agency, size, geographic location, type of ecosystem, permitted uses, or any other attribute.

Resources on the definition of wilderness character:

  • Preserving wilderness character is a legal mandate from the 1964 Wilderness Act
  • Wilderness character is composed of five tangible qualities that for stewardship are equally important, interrelated, and together form a unique and holistic resource
  • Stewardship decisions can preserve or degrade wilderness character
  • Wilderness character and its qualities clarifies and improves communication among agency staff and with the public about wilderness and its stewardship
  • Wilderness character includes an intangible quality that is typically outside the stewardship purview but is nonetheless an important and vital part of wilderness

A wilderness character narrative is an optional tool to help local staff understand and document how the tangible and intangible aspects of a wilderness are integrated into a holistic understanding of wilderness character that is unique to every wilderness. The narrative provides a touchstone for staff to refer back to when there is a question about how the wilderness is being managed to preserve wilderness character. Typically, this narrative is developed from discussion among local staff, the public, and tribes, and forms a foundational document for stewardship of the wilderness. This narrative has also been used as the starting point to identify key tangible elements that need to be monitored to ensure preservation of the area’s wilderness character. Wilderness character narratives have been developed for many NPS, FS, and FWS wildernesses.

Resources on the wilderness character narrative:

The 1964 Wilderness Act established a single National Wilderness Preservation System, and the four wilderness managing agencies collaborate, coordinate, and communicate their stewardship goals and methods by participating on the Interagency Wilderness Policy Council, Interagency Wilderness Steering Committee, and Interagency Wilderness Character Monitoring Committee. These groups endorsed the definitions and strategies in Keeping It Wild 2 (2015) to foster and facilitate consistent nation-wide wilderness stewardship that preserves wilderness character. Preserving wilderness character is also the first priority identified in the Vision 2020 document presents interagency goals, objectives, and actions to guide collaborative stewardship of America’s National Wilderness Preservation System.

Resources on interagency collaboration for preserving wilderness character:

The concepts and products presented in this toolbox were developed, reviewed, tested, and refined by wilderness staff across all administrative levels, from on-the-ground field staff to national wilderness program managers, in all four wilderness managing agencies. The effort to develop practical stewardship guidance on wilderness character began with the Forest Service in 2001; building on this initial effort, the other agencies developed their own agency-specific guidance. Throughout this time there was substantial communication among the agencies, allowing each agency to iteratively build on and refine their effort based on the experience of the other agencies. Building on these efforts of the individual agencies, the first interagency guidance was published in Keeping It Wild (2008). To date, about 300 agency staff worked directly on developing wilderness character stewardship guidance documents, these documents were reviewed by about 200 other agency staff and were pilot tested in 68 designated wildernesses and wilderness study areas, and over 1,000 public comments were received, discussed, and incorporated as appropriate. The history of these efforts up through 2015 is presented in Appendix 1 of Keeping It Wild 2 (2015).

Wilderness Fellows significantly aided field testing, reviewing, and refining the concept of wilderness character and it’s monitoring in the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. From 2010 to 2017, 68 recent college graduates and others were selected from a large number of applicants to be Wilderness Fellows placed for 6-month periods with wilderness agency staff in field offices from Alaska to Florida.

Resources on the history of developing this understanding of wilderness character:

Agency Policy and Other Key Agency Documents

All four wilderness managing agencies have policies and additional guidance documents on preserving wilderness character.



Using Wilderness Character in Stewardship

Preserving wilderness character is a fundamental part of nearly all aspects of wilderness stewardship, including planning, evaluating potential impacts from proposed projects, and long-term monitoring to determine the effectiveness of stewardship decisions and the outcomes of agency policies. Mapping threats and potential impacts to wilderness character can be incorporated into all of the above activities. Planning to preserve wilderness character and evaluating potential impacts are presented here, while monitoring and mapping are presented in their own, separate major sections below.

The Forest Service and National Park Service developed guidance documents for incorporating preserving wilderness character into agency planning efforts. 

Resources on preserving wilderness character in stewardship planning:

The Forest Service and National Park Service documents referenced above for stewardship planning also discuss evaluating potential impacts to wilderness character from proposed projects. Understanding potential impacts to wilderness character is a fundamental part of the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center‘s Minimum Requirements Decision Guide and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute’s published evaluation processes for two specific types of proposed projects:  scientific research and ecological restoration. Documenting impacts to wilderness character was used as the organizational structure in several environmental impact statements that analyzed potential impacts from large-scale projects proposed within and adjacent to designated wilderness.

Resources on evaluating potential impacts to wilderness character from proposed projects:

Examples of Environmental Impact Statements evaluating impacts to wilderness character:

Wilderness Character Monitoring

Key to preserving wilderness character is monitoring how it changes over time. Only with robust long-term monitoring data can the effectiveness of on-the-ground stewardship and national policies be evaluated for fulfilling the legal mandate of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Keeping It Wild 2 (2015), recognizing that each of the four wilderness managing agencies has specific mandates, policies, and culture, provides a foundational strategy that each agency built on to develop their own agency-specific monitoring program. Basing individual agency monitoring programs on this interagency strategy allows compilation of the data across agencies, in turn allowing assessment of how wilderness character is changing across the entire National Wilderness Preservation System.

In addition to the interagency strategy in Keeping It Wild 2 (2015), all four wilderness managing agencies have their own guidelines for wilderness character monitoring. The examples provided here were selected by Carhart staff to illustrate best practices.

Bureau of Land Management

Forest Service

Fish and Wildlife Service

National Park Service

An interagency wilderness character monitoring database is used by agency staff, with permissioned access only, to enter, process, store, analyze, and create reports on trends in wilderness character for every wilderness. 

Resources on the wilderness character monitoring database:

Mapping Threats to Wilderness Character

Mapping threats to wilderness character is based on the tangible qualities, indicators, and measures developed for wilderness character monitoring and presented in Keeping It Wild 2 (2015), but is different in one key way: the measures used in mapping must be spatially-explicit. The purpose for developing this map is to: 1) show where and what the condition of wilderness character is, 2) establish a baseline for assessing where and how wilderness character is changing over time, and 3) evaluate in a spatially explicit way potential impacts of proposed projects and potential outcomes of planning alternatives.

These resources provide an overview of the goals, cautions, and methods for mapping threats to wilderness character:

These resources provide tools for creating a map of threats to wilderness character:

The following are examples of maps of threats to wilderness character that were developed to support wilderness stewardship planning and monitoring: