Wilderness Act: Summary, Impact, and Current Status

The Wilderness Act protects 111 million acres of land in the US.

Mount Hood, Oregon
Mount Hood, Oregon.

Tyler Hulett / Getty Images

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was established to create a preservation system for the country’s wild areas and require federal land management agencies to manage officially designated wilderness areas in such a way that preserves their wilderness character.

This important act—considered by many to be one of the greatest conservation achievements in United States history—created an incisive way for Americans to protect their most unspoiled areas for future generations.

Definition of Wilderness According to the Wilderness Act

  • In contrast with those areas where humans and their work dominate the landscape, wilderness is recognized as an area where the earth and its community are not restricted or hampered by humans (essentially, an area where humans are visitors and do not remain).
  • An area of undeveloped Federal land that’s retained its primeval character and influence without any permanent improvements or human habitation.
  • Land that is protected and managed to preserve its natural conditions and that generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature without the imprint of highly noticeable human work.
  • Land that has substantial opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation.
  • Land with either at least 5.000 acres or of sufficient size for practical preservation.
  • May also contain ecological or geological features, as well as features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

History and Background

In the 1950s, it was becoming clear that increasing populations, expanding settlement, and growing industrial development would continue to threaten the integrity of our wild areas. In 1955, a group of conservationists led by environmentalist Howard Zahniser made headlines when they successfully fought to prevent the Echo Park Dam from being built on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. The campaign helped bring more awareness to the larger debate over protecting wildlands in the United States.

Wrangell-Saint Elias, Alaska
Wrangell-Saint Elias, Alaska. Cappan / Getty Images

Zahniser, who at the time held the executive director position for the Wilderness Society, is credited with drafting the bill in 1956 in an effort to save some of the country’s last remaining wild areas.

The Wilderness Act sought to assure "that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”

The bill floated around for the next eight years, and after 66 revisions and 18 hearings, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on September 3, 1964.

One of the very first areas to be protected under the Wilderness Act was the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana, named for the principal founder of the Wilderness Society.

Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System established by the Wilderness Act is a network of over 800 federally designated wilderness areas spanning 111 million acres in all but six U.S. states. The smallest wilderness area in the system is Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida, at just 5.5 acres, while the largest is Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness, which protects over 9 million acres of Alaskan tundra and boreal forest.

Summary of the Law

Originally, the Wilderness Act designated 9.1 million acres as official wilderness areas and laid out a long-term process for additional designations in the future. 

New Wilderness Areas

Federal agencies study lands that are already under United States jurisdiction in order to identify new wilderness areas, making recommendations to the president to supply to Congress. Once the land has been designated as wilderness by Congress, it becomes illegal to conduct any commercial enterprises or construct permanent roads within the area, including timber harvest, new grazing or mining activity, or any other type of development.

Additionally, there shall be no temporary roads, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, no motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no forms of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within wilderness areas.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, specifically as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area, including measures required for emergency purposes.

The act also provides that wildlands be administered for the “use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness and preserve their untouched character.”

Management of Wilderness Areas

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Mark Newman / Getty Images

Wilderness areas are managed and enforced by the four federal land management agencies—the National Park Service, Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior. Each of the four agencies charges personnel to protect the wilderness character of the areas under their own jurisdictions.

Wilderness Character

Wilderness character refers to the interaction of biophysical environments free from modern human manipulation and impact, personal experiences in natural environments free from modern society, and symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence that inspire human connection with nature.

According to the National Park Service, wilderness character also includes five qualities associated with this biophysical environment—natural quality, untrammeled quality, undeveloped quality, opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation quality, and other features of value quality (for example, the cultural traditions of Indigenous people).

Impact

Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona
Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona. Ron and Patty Thomas / Getty Images

The Wilderness Preservation System that started with just over 9 million acres has since grown to over 111 million acres, though designating land is only the first step to protecting the country’s wildlands.

Only by maintaining the highest quality of enforcement conducted by the four federal agencies tasked with its stewardship duties can the Wilderness Act continue to make a lasting stamp on the nation’s environmental integrity.

Not only do wilderness areas provide habitats for wildlife and threatened species, they also help supply clean water for communities, filter the air we breathe, boost economies with ecotourism, and provide natural areas to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern world.  

Current Status

Those 111 million acres may sound like a lot, but they only represent less than 5% of the total United States land base. What’s more, when you factor out Alaskan wilderness, they represent just 2.7% of the lower 48 states.

In 2009, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act passed under President Obama added over 2 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, but only about 500,000 acres were added over the following decade until 2019. That year, 37 new wilderness areas spanning 1.3 million acres in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah were designated on March 12 by the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.

In early 2021, Congress approved the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, which included provisions protecting 2.7 million acres of wilderness in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington. The bipartisan package helped advance the U.S. government’s goal of conserving 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030.