What Is Wilderness?

a panoramic view of subarctic tundra and majestic mountains
A small portion of the vast Katmai Wilderness.

NPS/Anela Ramos

 
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.
  • To be untrammeled is to be essentially free from the intentional actions of modern human control or manipulation. It does not mean untrampled. People still move through Wilderness. But untrammeled means it is not manipulated for human ends beyond the wilderness experience. That means that we do not manage Wilderness to favor one species over another, or otherwise attempt to control natural processes.
  • To be undeveloped is to be primeval in nature, without permanent improvement or human habitation. That means there are essentially no permanent structures in Wilderness and no motorized vehicles. This is a place to experience something other than the comforts of modern convenience.
  • To be natural is to be a place where ecological processes continue unimpeded, where plants and animals exist without the pressures of human influence, and where water and air quality is high. No place on the planet is entirely free from human impact, but a Wilderness is one area where care is taken to ensure human impact does not predominate.

    Those three can sound similar, but each has a somewhat different focus. One looks to intent, one to development, and one to environment. The fourth quality stands out by referring to a particular type of experience.
  • Wildernesses are meant to be experienced in a particular way. They offer solitude through remoteness. They offer primitive and unconfined recreation by cutting out influence from mechanized forms of interaction. This is a place for canoeists seeking quiet, for backpackers seeking a spot far away from city lights, for hikers who want to be entirely self reliant, and others like them.
  • The other features of value can include marvels that are ecological, geological, cultural, scenic, scientific, or historical in nature. A Wilderness designation protects not just the life within and the quality of a certain type of experience. It also protects a place that offers other values. Whether it protects artifacts or landscapes, scientific anomalies or biologically diverse habitats, wildernesses exist to afford critical protections for features that would be otherwise vulnerable.

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
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”

Each of us plays a role in preserving that vision.

Last updated: January 2, 2018

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