Are you using a screen reader? Click here to view the navigation links for this site as a bulleted list.

Partner logos: BLM, FWS, FS, NPS, University of Montana Logo
Connecting federal employees, scientists, educators, and the public with their wilderness heritage
Text size: A | A | A  [Print]

Common Misconceptions About Wilderness

MISCONCEPTION: Wilderness is a "lock-up" of land that locks people out. Hiking by foot is the only means of travel within wilderness, and wilderness prohibits many popular types of recreation.

In fact, the Wilderness Act specifically says that wilderness is for the "use and enjoyment of the American people." Americans take between 16 and 35 million trips to wilderness annually that include activities like hiking, backpacking, camping, canoeing, rafting, kayaking, climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, horseback riding, cross-country and downhill skiing, swimming, fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing etc. In short, most types of outdoor recreation are allowed in wilderness, except those needing mechanical transport or motorized equipment, such as motorboats, cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, bicycles and snowmobiles. Exceptions include wheelchairs and, in Alaska, certain mechanized and motorized uses are allowed in association with traditional and subsistence activities. Millions of acres of other types of public land are open to motorized recreation, and the fraction of land preserved as wilderness ensures that those seeking non-motorized recreational opportunities can enjoy them in an environment free from the effects of "expanding settlement and growing mechanization" mentioned in the Wilderness Act.
More on the benefits of wilderness >>

MISCONCEPTION: The word wilderness refers to all wild lands, including that overgrown park down the street.

In fact, not all lands that are wild are designated as wilderness. Wilderness lands are Federal lands that have been designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System by Congress and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service under the Wilderness Act of 1964, and subsequent wilderness laws. Although some states and Native American tribes have designated lands as state or tribal wilderness, these lands are not managed under the Wilderness Act and therefore do not qualify as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Additionally, many people mistakenly refer to national parks, state parks, county and city open spaces, or even primitively privately-owned lands as wilderness. These lands, although wild and valuable as compliments to lands contained within the National Wilderness Preservation System, are also not considered to be wilderness according to the Wilderness Act.
More on non-wilderness lands related to wilderness >>

MISCONCEPTION: Most public land is protected as wilderness.

Currently, the National Wilderness Preservation System contains 111,365,114 acres. However, only 4.90% of the entire United States-an area slightly larger than the state of California-is protected as wilderness. This is deceptive since 52% of America's wilderness is found in Alaska. Therefore, only 2.83% of the contiguous United States-an area about the size of South Dakota-is protected as wilderness.

MISCONCEPTION: Wilderness is found only in big western states or in Alaska.

In fact, while a lot of wilderness is found in the west, all but six states have federal designated wilderness: Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Rhode Island.

MISCONCEPTION: Wilderness is only found in remote places like high-elevation mountains with snow and ice or vast sandy deserts.

In reality, the National Wilderness Preservation System preserves a wide variety of ecosystems throughout the country including swamps in the Southeast, tundra in Alaska, snowcapped peaks in the Rocky Mountains, hardwood forests in the Northeast, and deserts in the Southwest. More than half of these diverse wilderness areas are within a day's drive of America's largest cities.

MISCONCEPTION: All wilderness areas are managed by the Forest Service.

In fact, four federal agencies in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior share the responsibility of managing the National Wilderness Preservation System: Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service. While the Forest Service manages the largest number of wilderness areas, the National Park Service manages the most wilderness acreage.
More on wilderness management >>

Give us your feedback