Wilderness in Glacier National Park

Sunrise at Oldman Lake
Sunrise at Oldman Lake



“Guard, protect, and cherish your land, for there is no afterlife for a place that started out as heaven.”

- Charlie Russell

Wallace Stegner once wrote, “If the national park idea is, as Lord Bryce suggested, the best idea America ever had, wilderness preservation is the highest refinement of that idea” (Wilderness.net 2016).

Glacier National Park, in the Rocky Mountains of northwestern Montana, contains nearly 1,600 square miles of rugged mountain country. Nestled among the higher peaks are many glaciers and 200 beautiful lakes. Horseback and foot trails interweave almost all sections of the park.

This is a land of sharp, precipitous peaks, and knife-edged ridges, girdled with forests. Alpine glaciers lie in the shadow of towering walls at the heads of great ice-carved valleys. Streams flow northward to Hudson Bay, eastward to the Gulf of Mexico, and westward to the Pacific.

In September of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which made the preservation and protection of wild lands and places a national priority.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 directed the Secretary of the Interior to “review every roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres or more in the national parks…” and to “report to the President his recommendation as to the suitability or non-suitability of each such area… for preservation as wilderness.”

Glacier National Park completed a study and environmental impact statement in 1973 to comply with the Wilderness Act. As a result, over 90 percent of the park was proposed to be formally designated wilderness. President Richard Nixon submitted the Glacier National Park wilderness recommendation to Congress on June 13, 1974. It was recommended that 927,550 acres of wilderness within Glacier National Park be designated by an act of Congress. A bill was subsequently introduced to formally designate the land as wilderness. While the bill was never enacted, Glacier manages its recommended wilderness according to NPS policy—as if it were designated wilderness—until Congress determines the status of those acres.

Hikers in the backcountry
Hikers in the backcountry



What is Wilderness?

Wilderness is untrammeled.
The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as those lands where "...the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." A trammel is a shackle, or net, used to restrain and restrict movement. Land that is untrammeled, as described by the act, is unhindered, free from the manipulation of humankind.

Wilderness is natural.
Wilderness retains its "...primeval character and influence... [and is] protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions," according to the act. The park wilderness is managed to maintain its natural ecology. The vast glacially carved valleys and peaks you see today, with the lush variety of vegetation, and the amazing array of native wildlife species, are much the same as they were hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Wilderness is undeveloped.
Wilderness is further defined as "...an area of undeveloped Federal land...without permanent improvements or human habitation." In the wilderness of Glacier you will find large tracts of land where even rudimentary trails are nonexistent and evidence of human activity is hard to find. However, some developments are necessary for park operations, visitor enjoyment, and safety. Those entering Glacier’s wilderness will find well-established trails, backcountry campgrounds, signs, and bridges. You might come across one of Glacier’s historic ranger stations or patrol cabins, used by wilderness rangers and trail crews during the busy summer season.

Wilderness offers outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined recreation.
Wilderness "...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." There are many ways to experience the parks' wilderness, from hiking, horseback riding, climbing, backpacking, or watching the diverse array of wildlife that call Glacier’s wilderness home.The Wilderness Act does more than establish protected lands. In what is perhaps the act's most vital accomplishment, it articulates a philosophy of wilderness that emphasizes not only a responsibility for environmental preservation, but also the importance of wilderness to the well-being of our nation's citizens.

Wilderness may also contain other features of ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.
Human influence has created a wide range of cultural resources found in Glacier. These include archeological sites; modern Native American ceremonial sites and ethnographic places of importance; and historic park administration structures. Glacier encompasses over 200 known prehistoric sites, some dating back to 10,000 BCE. The Chief Mountain and Two Medicine areas continue to be important ceremonial and religious focal points for members of the Blackfoot Nation. The Kootenai perceive significant meanings along the Trail of the Cedars, among other areas near McDonald Lake, and within the park. These features add to the rich tapestry of Glacier’s wilderness character.

Mountain Goat
You never know what's around the next corner.



Wilderness Management in Glacier

Wilderness is a balancing act.
The park manages wilderness with two priorities in mind: the use and enjoyment of the American people, and the preservation of wilderness character. In order to steward the diverse ecosystem of the Crown of the Continent, the park is mandated to preserve wilderness character, which is a combination of the five qualities mentioned above: Wilderness is untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and a primitive or unconfined recreation, and other features of ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.

In addition, from the Wilderness Act, “each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character. Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”

Park stewards face a difficult task. They must consider all five qualities of wilderness character when making decisions about park operations in wilderness. In an effort to enhance one aspect of wilderness character, they may impact another. For example, a project that enhances the 'natural' quality of the wilderness, such as eradication of invasive plant species, also affects its 'untrammeled' quality; while the project restores the natural ecosystem, it also manipulates the existing environment. Humility and restraint should guide the wilderness management process. Managing, protecting, and improving Glacier’s wilderness character as a whole is the underlying goal of wilderness stewardship. To sum it up, wilderness lands are managed differently than backcountry lands.

Monkey flowers along a sub-alpine stream
Monkey flowers along a sub-alpine stream



Other Wilderness Management Principles used in Glacier

Minimum Requirement
All management decisions and activities affecting wilderness must be consistent with the minimum requirement concept. This concept is a documented process used to determine whether administrative activities affecting wilderness resources or the visitor experience are necessary, and how to minimize impacts.The minimum requirement concept will be applied as a two-step process that determines:

  1. Whether the proposed management action is appropriate or necessary for administration of the area as wilderness and does not pose a significant impact to wilderness resources and character; and
  2. The techniques and types of equipment needed to ensure that the impact to wilderness resources and character is minimized.

Motorized Equipment/Mechanical Transport
Public use of aircraft for landings or for other purposes, drone use, the use of motorized vehicles, equipment, generators and similar devices, and bicycles are not permitted in national park wilderness. Park management may use motorized equipment and mechanical transport for administering the area as wilderness only when it has been determined that the use of such equipment meets the minimum requirement concept.

Scientific Activities
The National Park Service recognizes the scientific value of wilderness areas as natural outdoor laboratories and encourages research and data collection in wilderness areas. The National Park Service will limit research and data gathering to those projects which require such areas for their accomplishment. The Service may establish limitations on research and data collection projects in order to protect wilderness character.

Natural Resources Management
The principle of non-degradation will be applied to wilderness. Natural processes will be allowed, insofar as possible, to shape and control wilderness ecosystems. Management intervention should only be undertaken to the extent necessary to correct past mistakes, the impacts of human use, and influences originating outside of wilderness boundaries. Non-native species of plants and animals will be eliminated where it is possible to do so by approved methods that preserve wilderness character.

Cultural Resources Management
Wilderness does not prevent the National Park Service from protecting and maintaining historic and cultural resources located within wilderness areas. These resources may be protected and maintained according to the pertinent laws and policies governing cultural resources, using management methods that are consistent with the preservation of wilderness character and values.

Fire Management
Actions taken to suppress wildfires must use the minimum requirements concept unless the on-site decision-maker determines in their professional judgement that conditions dictate otherwise. Wildfires may be controlled as necessary to prevent unacceptable loss of wilderness values, loss of life, damage to property, and the spread of wildfire to lands outside the wilderness. Aircraft, motorboats, and motorized firefighting equipment may be permitted for such control. Prescribed fire and hazard fuel reduction programs may be implemented according to approved plans.

Administrative Facilities, Practices and Uses
Only those structures, administrative practices, and uses necessary for management and preservation of the wilderness character of an area are permitted. These may include, but need not be limited to, patrol cabins, limited facilities associated with saddle and pack stock control, and radio communication antennas and sites.


Last updated: February 12, 2024

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PO Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936



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