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How Wilderness Becomes Wilderness

This figure presents a simplified schematic of the wilderness designation process, and this process is different depending on who recommends an area for wilderness designation (state or Federal land management agencies, organized groups, individuals, you). For more detail on the recommendation process Federal land management agencies must go through to designate wilderness, click on one of the following agency shields: BLM designation process FWS designation process FS designation process NPS designation process
This figure presents a simplified schematic of the wilderness designation process.

Why Some Wildlands Are Not Designated as Wilderness

It takes an act of Congress to designate an area as wilderness. However, Congress must take the opinions of all American citizens into consideration when debating whether or not to designate an area as wilderness. As you might expect, this process can take years, even decades. For example in the National Park Service, recommendations dating back to the late 1970s still exist for 13 national parks, three national monuments, and one national seashore. In the Fish and Wildlife Service, 21 recommendations exist, the majority of which were submitted to Congress in 1974. This is why some lands that have been recommended to Congress have been designated as wilderness and some lands, such as areas in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, have not. In other cases, lands studied by the land management agencies were not considered suitable for wilderness designation.

Some practical questions used to determine suitability include:
  • Is the area 5,000 acres in size or larger? Or a roadless island?
  • Does the area generally appear to be natural and is human presence relatively unnoticeable?
  • Does the area offer the opportunity for primitive and unconfined recreational activities like camping, hiking, and skiing?
  • Does it provide opportunities for solitude?
  • Does the area contain features of ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historical significance?

Some wildlands that do not meet the criteria for suitability as wilderness are protected as national parks, national forests, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national conservation areas, national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails. Learn more about some of these other classifications of public land.



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