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]

What is "Wilderness"?

Wilderness is the land that was - wild land beyond the that shaped the growth of our nation and the character of its people.
Wilderness is the land that is - rare, wild places where one can retreat from civilization, reconnect with the Earth, and find healing, meaning and significance.

The Idea of Wilderness

A painting of covered wagons heading west into what was then considered a great unknown wilderness.
An artistic rendering of America's movement westward into what was then considered a fontier wilderness.
Wilderness is an indispensable part of American history, however, people have held various perspectives of wilderness throughout time. Historical events and articles, pamphlets, stories and books authored about wilderness and the environment tell us a story of shifting perceptions. During European settlement of America, wilderness was something to be feared. One settler in the early 1600s stated, "Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked." Indeed, early settlers struggled to clear and cultivate natural lands as a way of civilizing wild America[1]. In contrast to this utilitarian ideal, three centuries later, an American author stated, "[wilderness] is the ultimate source of health-terrestrial and human." Slowly, public views of wilderness have shifted more towards a protection orientation emphasizing sustainable development and balance and harmony with nature. More...

Wilderness, by Law

President Lyndon B. Johnson sits at a podium surrounded by officials.
The signing of the Wilderness Act into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964.
The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas through law. Subsequently, countries around the world have protected areas modeled after the Wilderness Act. In 1964 our nation's leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. The Wilderness Act is one of the most successful U.S. environmental laws, standing for almost 50 years without a substantial amendment, and, as such, continues to be the guiding piece of legislation for all wilderness areas. The Act describes wilderness as follows:

"...lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition..." Section 2(a)

" area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man..." Section 2(c)

" area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation..." Section 2(c)

"...generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..." Section 2(c)

"...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." Section 2(c)

"...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use." Section 4(b) More...

The Wilderness Act's Author

Classic portrait of Howard Zahniser.
Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the wilderness bill in 1956 and shepherded it through 65 rewrites and 18 public hearings.
Freedom is an essential quality of wilderness and this quality was eloquently captured by Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, in selection of the relatively obscure word "untrammeled" to define wilderness. Many people read the word "untrammeled" as "untrampled," as in not stepped on. Yet the word "untrammeled" means something much different. A "trammel" is a net used for catching fish, or a device used to keep horses from walking. To trammel something is to catch, shackle or restrain it. Untrammeled means something is free or unrestrained. So, wilderness areas are to be unconstrained by humans. Zahniser defined "untrammeled" in the Wilderness Act as "not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces." Unfortunately, this primary author and lead proponent of wilderness legislation died just four months before his bill was signed into law as the Wilderness Act. More...

Other Laws Affecting Wilderness

Although the Wilderness Act is the single piece of guiding legislation for all wilderness areas, many other laws affect wilderness. Some laws have designated additional wilderness areas, subsequent to the initial 54 areas designated under the Wilderness Act. Others guide management, such as the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. More...

Where Wilderness Areas Are Found

A collage of wilderness images showing an iceberg, cacti silhouetted against an orange sunset, a stream with mountains in the background, and a deciduous forest in fall colors.
Wilderness areas are found in 44 states and Puerto Rico.
The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, the system that collectively unites all individual wilderness areas. This system encompasses a wide variety of ecosystems throughout the country including swamps in the Southeast, tundra in Alaska, snowcapped peaks in the Rocky Mountains, hardwoods forests in the Northeast, and deserts in the Southwest. More...

Wilderness Truths and Misconceptions

Unfortunately, many misconceptions exist about wilderness. Some people think that wilderness is a "lock-up" of land that locks people out. Others think many popular recreational activities are prohibited in wilderness. Some people believe that wilderness is a forested backyard or a park down the street. Still others think that wilderness areas are found only in big western states or in Alaska. In fact, none of these statements is true. More...

Benefits of Wilderness

Wilderness contributes to the ecologic, economic and social health and well being of our citizens, our country and our world. The benefits wilderness areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and are highly valued. In addition to providing "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation," the Wilderness Act specified that wilderness "may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, education, scenic, or historical value." Overall, wilderness areas provide a host of both direct and indirect benefits. More...

Threats to Wilderness

A collage of wilderness two images showing multiple rafts and a water jug covered in black plastic.
Biophysical and social recreation impacts are often associated with overuse. Compacted soil and root exposure can damage campsites and nearby vegetation, while crowding can reduce the quality of wilderness experiences.
The value of wilderness depends upon the degree to which it remains in contrast to the highly developed world in which most of us live. However, designating areas as wilderness does not ensure sanctuary from events that threaten wild character. Wilderness is vulnerable to threats from both inside and outside of its boundaries. The demand for economic growth and a growing population exert significant pressures on wilderness. Many of these pressures are the same threats that other public lands face: overuse, fire suppression, invasive species, pollution, and lack of public awareness. More...

Wilderness Movement Leaders

Many prominent historical figures contributed to what has become the modern wilderness movement. However, today Americans still share a special connection to wilderness. Those who travel to wilderness or work in wilderness, professionally or as volunteers, tell heartening stories of inspiration and reward. More...

Designating Wilderness

Only Congress can designate wilderness, however, just about anyone can recommend wilderness to their elected representatives in Congress. Often these recommendations come from federal land management agencies or citizens, and sometimes agencies, advocacy groups and ordinary citizens work together to develop recommendations. Once recommended to Congress, both the House and the Senate must agree on which areas should be designated and their exact boundaries. After the House and Senate agree, the proposal is forwarded to the president to sign into law or veto. Historically, only one veto has occurred--in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. However, during his administration in 1984, more new wilderness areas were designated than in any other year. More...

Wilderness Stewardship

A collage of the four wilderness management agency logos.
America's wilderness areas are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service.
Wilderness management encompasses government activities "within the constraints of the Wilderness Act, to identify goals and objectives for designated wilderness areas and the planning, implementation, and administration of policies and management actions to achieve them" through the application of "concepts, criteria, guidelines, standards, and procedures derived from the physical, biological, social, and management sciences"[2 p. 12]. Ironically, the term is a paradox, with "wilderness" implying the absence of control by man and "management" implying man's control of nature or visitors. Although the prevailing opinion used to be to that designation alone ensured protection, increasingly management is necessary to protect wilderness character, making wilderness management a career for many federal land management professionals. More...


  1. Nash, R. (1982). Wilderness and the American Mind (3rd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Dawson, C. P. & Hendee, J. C. (2009). Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values (4th ed.). Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Give us your feedback