The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–577) was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres (37,000 km²) of federal land. The result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964 after over sixty drafts and eight years of work.

The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

“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, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

When Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, it created the National Wilderness Preservation System. The initial statutory wilderness areas, designated in the Act, comprised 9.1 million acres (37,000 km²) of national forest wilderness areas in the United States of America previously protected by administrative orders. The current amount of areas designated by the NWPS as wilderness totals 757 areas encompassing 109.5 million acres of federally owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico (5% of the land in the United States).


Today, the Wilderness System comprises over 109 million acres (441,000 km²) involving federal lands administered by four agencies:

The National Wilderness Preservation System:
Area Administered by each Federal Agency (September 2014)[1]
Agency Wilderness area Agency land
designated wilderness
National Park Service 43,932,843 acres (17,778,991 ha) 56%
U.S. Forest Service 36,165,620 acres (14,635,710 ha) 18%
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 20,702,488 acres (8,378,000 ha) 22%
Bureau of Land Management 8,710,087 acres (3,524,847 ha) 2%
Total 109,511,038 acres (44,317,545 ha) 16%

Legal framework

Wilderness Act land is chosen from existing federal land and by determining which areas are considered to have the following criteria:

  • Minimal human imprint
  • Opportunities for unconfined recreation
  • At least five thousand acres
  • Educational, scientific, or historical value

Additionally, areas considered as wilderness should have no enterprises within them or any motorized travel (e.g.; vehicles, motorcycles).[citation needed]

When Congress designates each wilderness area, it includes a very specific boundary line—in statutory law. Once a wilderness area has been added to the system, its protection and boundary can only be altered by another act of Congress.[citation needed]

The basics of the program set out in the Wilderness Act are straightforward:

  • The lands protected as wilderness are areas of our public lands.
  • Wilderness designation is a protective overlay Congress applies to selected portions of national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands.
  • Within wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act strives to restrain human influences so that ecosystems [the Wilderness Act, however, makes no specific mention of ecosystems] can change over time in their own way, free, as much as possible, from human manipulation. In these areas, as the Wilderness Act puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”—untrammeled meaning the forces of nature operate unrestrained and unaltered.
  • Wilderness areas serve multiple uses. But the law limits uses to those consistent with the Wilderness Act mandate that each wilderness area be administered to preserve the “wilderness character of the area.” For example, these areas protect watersheds and clean-water supplies vital to downstream municipalities and agriculture, as well as habitats supporting diverse wildlife, including endangered species, while logging and oil and gas drilling are prohibited.
  • Along with many other uses for the American people, wilderness areas are popular for diverse kinds of outdoor recreation—but without motorized or mechanical vehicles or equipment except where specifically permitted. Scientific research is also allowed in wilderness areas, as long as it is non-invasive.
  • The Wilderness Act was reinterpreted by the Administration in 1986 to ban bicycles from Wilderness areas, which led to the current vocal opposition from mountain bikers to the opening of new Wilderness areas.
  • The Wilderness Act allows certain uses (e.g.; resource extraction, grazing, etc.) which existed before the land became wilderness to be grandfathered in, permitting them to continue to take place although the area that was designated as wilderness typically would not concede such uses. Specifically, mining, grazing, water uses, or any other uses that don’t significantly impact the majority of the area, can remain in some degree.

When the Wilderness Act was passed, it ignored lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management because of uncertainty of policy makers surrounding the future of those areas. The uncertainty was clarified in 1976 with the passing of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which stated that land managed by the Bureau of Land Management would remain federally owned and, between March 1978 and November 1980, would be reviewed to possibly be labelled as Wilderness.[2]


Some argue that the criteria to determine wilderness are vague and open to interpretation. For example, one criterion for wilderness is that it be roadless, and the act does not define the term roadless. Wilderness advocacy groups and some agency bureaucrats have attempted to impose a standard where “the word ‘roadless’ refers to the absence of roads that have been improved and maintained by mechanical means" [3] For more information see Revised Statute 2477.

Another criticism of the Wilderness Act is that it defines wilderness as "where man himself is a visitor who does not remain"[4]

Future legislation

Congress considers additional proposals every year, some recommended by federal agencies and many proposed by grassroots conservation and sportsmen’s organizations.[5]

Congressional bills are pending to designate new wilderness areas in Utah, Colorado, Washington, California, Virginia, Idaho, West Virginia, Montana and New Hampshire. Grassroots coalitions are working with local congressional delegations on legislative proposals for additional wilderness areas, including Vermont, southern Arizona, national grasslands in South Dakota, Rocky Mountain peaks of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended new wilderness designations, which citizen groups may propose to expand.

50th anniversary of Wilderness Act

In 2014, America celebrated "50 Years of Wilderness", and Wilderness50, a growing coalition of federal agencies, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and other wilderness user groups has been created to document this historical commemoration honoring America's "True American Legacy of Wilderness."[6]

A series of projects and events were held to commemorate the 50th year of the Wilderness Act, including community museum, airport and visitor center displays; National website and social media campaign; Smithsonian photography exhibition; Washington D.C. Wilderness Week in September, and the National Wilderness Conference.

See also



  1. ^ Table from The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting jalsdladslasjkladsjklads the Wilderness Act (Fulcrum Publishing, 2004). Wilderness area by agency from www.wilderness.net. For consistency, all data used for percentage calculation are from Federal Land Management Agencies: Background on Land and Resource Management (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, RL30867, February 2001)
  2. ^ Durrant, Jeffrey, Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007. Print.
  3. ^ "Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory on BLM Lands", 15 March 2012 [1]
  4. ^ "Wilderness.net - 1964 Wilderness Act". Wilderness.net. Retrieved 2017-02-25. 
  5. ^ Turner, James Morton (2012). The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295991757. 
  6. ^ http://www.wilderness50th.org/about.php?useraction=about-wilderness50


  • Dant, Sara. “Making Wilderness Work: Frank Church and the American Wilderness Movement.” Pacific Historical Review 77 (May 2008): 237-272.
  • Doug Scott (August 15, 2004). The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage through the Wilderness Act. Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN 1-55591-527-2. 
  • "The Wilderness Act of 1964." [2]
  • "Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory on BLM Lands", 15 March 2012 [3]
  • Jeffrey 0. Durrant (2007). Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-2669-9. 
  • James Morton Turner (2012). The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295991757. 

External links