Wilderness Fundamentals

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



The goal of this toolbox is to promote wilderness awareness - a clear and concise understanding of the wilderness concept and the legal description of wilderness as provided in the 1964 Wilderness Act and subsequent wilderness laws. It is also intended to provide a stable reference for terminology and management principles that will survive changes in staffing, funding, politics, downsizing, and the cultural evolution of agencies and society.

Further, wilderness management and stewardship must be viewed as a shared responsibility of every employee of wilderness managing agencies. The level of responsibility will differ with the position. Wilderness advocates also share a degree of responsibility. Wilderness is an integral component of federal land management and is part of the larger land community of which we are members. Simply put, wilderness is part of an array of interrelated resources managed by federal land managers and the conservation of all of these resources is a community responsibility.

  1. To assemble easy-to-use tools for field-level managers, resource specialists, and volunteer stewards. It also should be very useful to other agency employees and anyone interested in promoting awareness and protection of the Nation's wilderness resources.
  2. To provide an educational tool for promoting the values of the wild in wilderness.
  3. To encourage mangers, stewards, and other interested people to continuously refer to the Wilderness Act of 1964 as a touchstone to answer questions and to solve problems on the use and management of wilderness values.
  4. To encourage managers, stewards, and wilderness advocates to pursue an intense and ongoing educational campaign and to educate and reeducate land managers and the public about wilderness values and the expertise needed to conserve wilderness areas.
  5. To provide this wilderness awareness material in an easily accessible package on www.wilderness.net.

"Awareness implies vigilance in observing or alertness in drawing inferences from what one experiences," according to Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary. Ideally, any effort to instill wilderness awareness would include; first, a good introduction to agency policy, legal definitions and management direction that Congress has provided; second, a hands-on involvement to gain an understanding of the practical aspects of managing the wilderness resource preferably gained inside wilderness and; and the third might be described as the experiential component which helps the manager see wilderness from the wilderness advocates perspective. It grows an appreciation of the spiritual benefits of wilderness and promotes a desire to work assertively to protect wilderness values for future generations. Finally, it can be plainly stated that one’s wilderness awareness is advanced much more rapidly in the mountains, deserts, canyons, swamps, rivers, and forests than it is by studying in front of a computer monitor or at wilderness symposiums.

In the course of the last two centuries in North America, specifically in the United States, the concept of conserving the vestiges of wild North America has evolved and continues to evolve culturally, politically, and legally. For many people, wilderness offers unique recreational and profound spiritual experiences, some have simply found the wilderness designation useful tool for legislating a roadless condition while still others find it to be an intolerable obstacle to development.

The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 was a significant milepost in perpetuating the wilderness concept. The ’64 Act provided the legal definition of wilderness, established a National Wilderness Preservation System, and provided management direction for included areas. Subsequent laws have added additional acreage to the system (from 9.1 million in ’64 to about 106 million in 2004) and have amended parts of the original law. Several laws including NEPA, RPA, FLPMA and NFMA have also subtly amended the Wilderness Act by requiring the Forest Service to view wilderness as a component in an ecosystem management framework. These more recent laws have mandated an ecosystem context for planning for wilderness. They also specified that using an interdisciplinary management approach involving the interested public sector in planning and management. In partnership with the public, wilderness managers have a responsibility to preserve an enduring resource of wilderness where natural processes generally operate freely and humans are visitors who do not remain and their works and impacts are not apparent.

Simply designating an area as wilderness does not assure its preservation. An understanding of wilderness values needs to guide all activities in wilderness, including grazing, access to private lands, mining, fish and wildlife, cultural sites, fire management, and insects and disease. Management is needed to minimize the impacts of the wilderness visitor on the immediate environment and on the experience of other visitors. Wilderness management applies guidelines derived from social and natural sciences to preserve the qualities for which wilderness was established.

Environmental politics, especially heated during classification battles, produce innumerable compromises and special stipulations that are written into contemporary wilderness legislation. These special stipulations and other factors have tended to promote a wilderness definition drift that allows less natural and more domesticated, rather than truly wild lands, to be added to the national Wilderness Preservation System. 

The long-term value of wilderness in our society and the world will be their naturalness and wildness, and their protection from human influence. We need to better understand these values and strive to keep human influence to a minimum while still providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy and experience the wilderness.

A final introductory thought is that wilderness conservation and management is a field of specialization in natural resource management not unlike forestry, wildlife biology, fisheries, or hydrology. It demands education, experience, and skill development to assure that it’s managed as an enduring resource. And perhaps more than any other specialty it requires an ecosystem management approach with heavy involvement from all the appropriate sciences including the social sciences.

Throughout this paper the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the books Wilderness Management; Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values, 3rd edition, by Hendee and Dawson, Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash, and Doug Scott’s The Enduring Wilderness strongly influence the discussion. 

For more information visit the following websites:

Wilderness Values, Benefits, and Threats

Wilderness Laws With National Implications

A thorough discussion of the 1964 Wilderness Act can be found in Chapter 4 of Wilderness Management. A chronological listing of wilderness designating laws is provided in Appendix B of Wilderness Management. Abstracts of wilderness laws from 1964 to 2000 are provided in Appendix C of the same book. Additional discussion can be found in Chapter 5 of Wilderness Management on important wilderness legislation after the 1964 Act.

After Congress passed the ’64 Wilderness Act there have been more than 130 additional laws enacted between 1964 and 2000 adding acreage to the NWPS. More than half of these laws contained special provisions affecting specific wilderness areas, parts of the system or in a few situations all of the NWPS. To fully understand some of these special provisions, the full text of the law, the Congressional record, and an appreciation of the issues that spawned the special provisions are often needed.

Because of the multitude of special provisions included in wilderness legislation a manager of any one area is required to be knowledgeable of the ’64 Act plus the act that added the area in question to the NWPS and additionally any legislation that added acreage to that area. Further there are several pieces of legislation that provide broad management direction for a number of previously designated areas.

The files in this section summarize some of the primary laws that effect management of wilderness in the national forest system. Additional information is also available on how an area becomes designated as wilderness. The full text of wilderness legislation can be found in the law ibrary, and two additional searchable databases exist on legislative history and special provisions.

Historical background information useful in understanding the meaning of various portions of the Wilderness Act can be found in: Scott, Douglas W., A Wilderness-Forever Future: A Short History of the National Wilderness Preservation System, American Wilderness Campaign, Washington, D.C., 2001.

Also, see The Wilderness Act E-Learning Training Course.

The Wilderness Act states Congressional policy, establishes a National Wilderness Preservation System, defines wilderness, provides administrative and management direction, prohibits certain uses and activities, and establishes a process for adding wild lands to the NWPS. This act also lists the original areas included in the NWPS, and it provides a study and evaluation process for additional areas.

"Congress finds that - In the more populous eastern half of the United States there is an urgent need to identify, study, designate, and preserve areas for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System..."

And "areas of wilderness in the more populous eastern half of the United States are increasingly threatened by the pressures of a growing and more mobile population, large scale industrial and economic growth, and development and uses inconsistent with the protection, maintenance and enhancement of the wilderness character."

"Therefore, the Congress finds and declares that in the National interest that these and similar areas in the eastern half of the United States be promptly designated as wilderness within the National Wilderness preservation System, in order to preserve such areas as an enduring resource of wilderness which shall be managed to promote and perpetuate the wilderness character of the land and its specific values of solitude, physical and mental challenge, scientific study, inspiration, and primitive recreation for the benefit of the American people of current and future generations."

During the debates leading up to passage of this law the Forest Service took the position that few if any areas in the east qualified as wilderness because they were not 'pristine' or 'untouched'. Congress did not accept this argument and directed the Forest Service to let go of this doctrine and follow through with inventory and recommendation of lands for Congress to consider designating as wilderness. Congress directed the National Park Service to do the same.

The Act added 16 National Forest areas to the NWPS and directed that 17 areas should be studied in eastern National Forests and within five years the Secretary of Agriculture should recommend additions to the NWPS. Condemnation authority was provided. Congress debated the issue of adding areas to the NWPS that had been severely modified. They chose to do so and declined to establish a separate "EasternWilderness" category. Wilderness areas east of the Mississippi can be referred to as"wilderness in the East."

Provides direction for the Bureau of Land Management on wilderness study and designation of wilderness areas on lands managed by the agency. This Act designates the BLM as the fourth Federal agency to manage wilderness.

Designates certain undeveloped national forest lands as wilderness and also includes the Oregon Omnibus Wilderness Act of 1978. Many wilderness advocates who fought for this law did so with the idea it corrected oversights of the Forest Service RARE I process and correctly added areas to the NWPS that the Forest Service didn't recommend. Hence the "Endangered" name for the legislation.

'By passing the Endangered Wilderness Act, Congress further established that areas previously modified or influenced by man should not be precluded from wilderness designation, nor should roadless areas near major cities since they provide primitive recreation opportunities close to population concentrations. The Congressional Record for this law endorsed the Forest Service plan to conduct a RARE II evaluation.'

In this Act Congress declined to endorse the need for buffer zones around wilderness areas. This action forced the Forest Service to abandon the 'sights and sounds' doctrine which had limited areas from being recommended for designation as wildernessbecause they were too close to roads and areas of development.

This law added over 56 million acres to the NWPS. In recognition of the special conditions that exist in Alaska, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) allowed many activities that may be permitted on national forest wilderness lands that would otherwise not conform to the Wilderness Act of 1964. Most notable are provision for maintaining existing wilderness cabins, motorized access for traditional uses and subsistence purposes, modification of fish habitat and establishment of fish hatchery programs, construction of a limited number of new recreation cabins or shelters to protect public health and safety, use of trees for log houses and firewood, and commercial salvage of beach logs. Temporary facilities, such as tent platforms and shelters, may be established for hunting and fishing.

This is a comprehensive Colorado wilderness law adding areas to the NWPS. It is especially important because the Congress referred to House Committee Report 96-617 for interpretation of the 64 Wilderness Act management direction on livestock grazing that applies to all National Forest wilderness areas.

The law is particularly important because it specifies that the provisions of the Wilderness Act relating to grazing in National Forests will be interpreted and administered according to guidelines in the House Committee Report (96-617). It also prohibits buffer zones around wilderness areas and directed a review of management policies affecting Colorado's wilderness areas. Further this Act contained RARE II sufficiency and Release language.

Other Laws Directly Affecting Wilderness

The legal direction contained in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and subsequent wilderness legislation must be followed as intended. But, other laws also pertain to management of lands and resources inside designated wilderness and some provisions of these laws appear to conflict with the provisions contained in wilderness laws. Do the wilderness laws ’trump’ the other laws or vice versa?

In general, managers must meet the intent of all applicable laws and no law trumps another (unless indicated by specific language in a subsequent law). For example, if actions are needed in wilderness to conserve a species listed under the Endangered Species Act, those actions must be considered but implementation should occur in a way that minimizes adverse effects to the wilderness character.

Files in this section summarize other laws applicable to wilderness management.

Sec. 1 "It is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes."

Sec. 2 "The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized and directed to develop and administer the renewable surface resources of the national forests of the national forests for multiple use and sustained yield of the several products and services obtained there from." "The establishment and maintenance of areas of wilderness are consistent with the purposes and provisions of this Act."

"The purposes of this Act are: To declare a National Policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation..."

"In order to carry out the policy set forth in this Act, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other considerations of National policy, to impose and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may-

  • fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for the succeeding generations;
  • attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to the health and safety, or other undesirable or unintended consequences;
  • Preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity and variety of ...

This Act establishes the legal foundation requiring Federal Agencies to consider all actions and programs utilizing a systematic, interdisciplinary approach to evaluate the environmental effects of the proposed action. Further, agencies must identify environmental impacts which cannot be avoided, and must consider alternatives to the proposed action. Also, agencies must consider the relationship between local short- term uses of man's environment and enhancement of long term productivity and must identify and consider irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources involved in the proposed action.

These laws provide the statutory basis for protecting and managing heritage resources on Federal lands. Policies derived from this legal direction seek to balance the need for protecting heritage resources with the apparently conflicting mandate in the Wilderness Act to eliminate structures which do not have a legitimate administrative need. The intent and direction of all applicable laws must be met in wilderness.

Congress finds and declares that various species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been rendered extinct or are threatened with extinction as a consequence of economic growth and development, untempered by adequate concern or conservation.

This Act mandates conservation and the use of all methods and procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this Act are no longer necessary. When listed species or habitat are within wilderness managers must meet the direction and mandates of both the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Wilderness areas designated prior to 1970 are designated as Class I areas. Subsequent wilderness is designated as Class II. These designations provide definition of the levels of legal protection for air quality in wilderness. Air Quality monitoring in wilderness is necessary to determine if any effects from off-site pollution sources are causing impairment of wilderness resources. If impairment is determined the EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality agencies may become involved through the permit and regulatory processes to reduce the pollution at the source.

Upland and mountain wilderness areas often provide sources of clean water orginating in the natural environments. Downstream, swamp, desert, and coastal wilderness may be subject to the effects of water pollution from upstream sources.

Evolution of Clean Water Act programs over the last decade has included a shift from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to more holistic watershed-based strategies. Under the watershed approach equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones. A full array of issues are addressed, not just those subject to CWA regulatory authority. Involvement of stakeholder groups in the development and implementation of strategies for achieving and maintaining state water quality and other environmental goals is a hallmark of this approach.

The purpose of this Act is to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination discrimination against people with disabilities in areas of employment, transportation, communication, from the discriminatory aspects of architecture, over protective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.

The Conference Committee Report on this bill contains discussion specific to wilderness under Title V (Miscellaneous Provisions), item 76.

"(1) IN GENERAL. - Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act shall be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Wilderness Act,no agency shall be required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facility or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use."

"(2) DEFINITION. - For purposes of paragraph (1), the term 'wheelchair' means a device designed solely for use by a mobility-impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area."

"Consistent with this section and the Wilderness Act of 1964, the conferees intend that, where appropriate and consistent with the management objectives and maintenance of the wilderness character of the area, the land management agencies charged with the management responsibilities for wilderness areas designated under the authority of the Wilderness Act of 1964 should, when constructing or reconstructing a trail, bridge or facility, comply with the intent of this Act. In cases where Agencies have delegated or subcontracted their responsibilities, the intent of this section shall apply to the designee or contractor."

This Act amends the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 790 et seq.) which requires federal agencies to make facilities and programs accessible. ADA extends to mandate to all state and local governments and any facility or program receiving government funding.

The Rehabilitation Act, ADA and the '64 Wilderness Act appear to conflict dramatically if read literally without applying some common sense. The latter proposes to protect natural and undeveloped landscape values for future generations. ADA seeks to eliminate all discrimination to programs and facilities by tailoring facilities and programs to be universally accessible. The key point is that equal access will be provided and facilities will be 'universally accessible' by not discriminating against people with disabilities. Wheelchairs (as defined by the law) are allowed in wilderness and theForest Service does not install barriers to their use when constructing or reconstructing trails or bridges in wilderness. However, wilderness trail standards (management objectives) are applied and not the trail standards established for accessible non- wilderness trails. This approach allows equal access to all but does not alter the character of the wilderness.

Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship