Many people think of wilderness as being any place that is in some sense “wild.” In reality, wilderness is a human idea, one that has different forms across history and across cultures. In the United States, the word "Wilderness" (with a capital W) also has a legal definition with specific purposes in mind. A wildlife sanctuary made to preserve biodiversity is not necessarily a Wilderness. A national park protecting natural features is not necessarily a Wilderness ... but many national parks protect Wildernesses.
The Wilderness Act originally designated 9 million acres as Wilderness, and we have since added nearly 100 million more, adding up to 4.8% of land in the country. About half of all Wilderness is in Alaska. This lands all share five qualities of wilderness character: it is untrammeled, undeveloped, and natural, affording outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation, and it protects other features of value. Now, let’s look at those five indicators.
These standards can be a challenge to navigate. Many activities are restricted specifically to protect wilderness character. This means that any alteration has to go through a strict review process, whether it is setting up a temporary scientific installation or bringing in a large film crew that would have a noticeable long-term impact on the landscape. Even safety features like bridges are often left out of wilderness sites.
But those restrictions serve a purpose. There are many ways to experience the natural world, from walking in your local park to visiting a wildlife sanctuary to exploring developed recreation areas. A Wilderness offers something different. By giving a landscape the highest legal protection possible, you open up new opportunities. In setting aside large sections of land as free from development, you preserve the ecosystems within, allowing natural processes to unfold unimpeded. The abundance and variety of life is often higher in wilderness than surrounding areas, creating refuges for species that could not survive elsewhere. The watershed is freer from pollutants, protecting communities downriver. The soundscape is quieter, affording opportunities to exist apart from the noises of everyday life. The recreation possibilities are rich, giving hikers, backpackers, wildlife watchers, canoeists, kayakers, anglers, horseback riders, and more the chance to immerse themselves in a world much like the one that existed before modern convenience, modern technology, modern developed sprawl. They offer each person a chance to experience self-reliance, solitude, and remoteness.
When you explore a Wilderness, something fascinating happens. You become more attentive to small details: the lichen on a rock, the rustling in the brush, the feel of wood and stone—all things leap out and draw your attention. You can feel utterly immersed in a landscape. Every challenge you surmount, every skill you gain, offers a window into your own capabilities. Every wildlife encounter, every plant discovered, every process witnessed, reminds you that you are a part of a larger ecological community of astonishing complexity. These are places set apart from us, but they are also a crucial part of us.
In signing the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson said
Each of us plays a role in preserving that vision.
Last updated: January 2, 2018