The NPS and Wilderness

[We must] protect the country side and save it from destruction ... Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither ..." Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1964 congress enacted (nearly unanimously) and President Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act that established the National Wilderness Preservation System to “…secure for American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

The compatibility of the intent of the Wilderness Act and the purpose of the NPS is apparent in the similarity between language used in the NPS Organic Act and the Wilderness Act.

Excerpt from the Organic Act

“The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. “

And from the Wilderness Act

“… hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System…of federally owned areas designated by Congress as "wilderness areas", and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as 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.

Rapid Growth

The Wilderness Act defines the concept of “unimpaired” much more narrowly than the NPS Organic Act, tying it specifically to preserving wilderness conditions.

In spite of some early reluctance to embrace the provisions of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the National Park Service has become an essential component of the Wilderness Preservation System, managing more acreage within the Wilderness Preservation system than any other land management agency.

Congress has now designated more than 109 million acres of federal public lands as wilderness: nearly 44 million of these acres are found in 47 NPS units and represent 53 percent of national park system lands. Additional NPS areas are managed as “recommended” or "proposed" wilderness until Congress acts on their status.

Rapid Growth

Following President Jimmy Carter's executive action to protect huge segments of land in Alaska, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980. This act almost doubled the total size of the national park system, adding 56 million acres of wilderness.

Funding for this expansion came in part from The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had been established in 1964 under Secretary Udall. The fund earmarks revenues from visitor fees, surplus property sales, fuel taxes, and offshore oil and gas leases to be used for the acquisition of state and national parklands.

The process for lands to become part of the Wilderness Preservation System starts with studying the areas for suitability, and recommending appropriate lands as proposed Wilderness, eventually for a vote in Congress. This process can take years to complete.

Support for National Parks in Turbulent Times

Despite caution on the part of several presidential administrations, Congress adopted an activist stance toward park creation. It required the NPS to submit annual reports on potential new areas, including 12 that "have potential for inclusion in the National Park System." In 1978, a single piece of legislation—the National Parks and Recreation Act—authorized 15 new parks, earning the label "park barrel legislation" from critics. This act also specified that there is no hierarchy of parks. All parks hold the same importance within the NPS, regardless of designation.

Among the parks created in 1978 was Lowell National Historic Park, which chronicled immigrant and labor history during the Industrial Revolution. Parks that commemorated the other aspects of American history were also created during this era, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

Last updated: March 11, 2016