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The National Park









THE NATIONAL PARK wilderness NPS Arrowhead logo


Without knowing quite why, most people have a warm feeling for the word "wilderness." Part of this accord reflects adventurous times, personally experienced, amid scenes of grandeur and natural beauty. The feeling has some basis, too, in racial antiquity, deriving from early man's intimacy with the land and the forest.

For Americans, wilderness has an added meaning. This Nation is but a few generations away from the wilderness. The prairie schooner, the beaver trap, the gold pan, the long rifle, the axe, and the sod breaker—weapons of wilderness conquest—are a part of American tradition. The most cherished branch of the family tree is often the one representing an American pioneer—a first colonist, a great-grand father who moved westward across the Appalachians, or a grandmother who handled the reins along the Oregon Trail. Somehow, Americans think of wilderness as tied to all that is strong and good in their Country's and their own family history.

This booklet is about wilderness of a special kind—the superlative wilderness areas and wilderness qualities preserved in the National Parks.

To provide background for exploring the problem of wilderness, we shall consider the purpose of National Parks. We shall review the history of preservation practice in those parks. Then we'll take a look ahead to anticipate major problems of the future, and to consider how the wilderness and the wilderness qualities may be preserved while preparing the National Parks to serve better their increasing millions of visitors.


The National Park Service is now engaged in a 10-year improvement program called MISSION 66. It includes protection and preservation, park use and management, and, compared with very meager improvements of recent years, a sizeable development program.

Will this development impair the quality or reduce the area of park wilderness?

Does wilderness preservation mean discarding the tradition of National Park hospitality and require rationing of visitors, elimination of lodges and campgrounds, or other radical changes?

Both questions are being asked seriously by friends of the National Parks. The points of view involved are not irreconcilable, and the National Park Service seeks a sane and practical middle ground, with no compromise whatsoever with the basic and traditional purpose of the National Parks.

To come up with the right answers we must have some idea of what a wilderness area is, and what benefits it provides. Yet 10 people will give you 10 different answers to the question. Some will say it is an area affording exceptionally good hunting and fishing. For some it is a vast natural area where a biker can lose himself for days out of sight and sound of civilization. Others say that a wilderness is an area, regardless of size, that retains a wild character.

Unless we are content to say merely that wilderness is wilderness, probably no one can define the term precisely. However, we must try to develop a brief definition if only to be sure that the word means the same thing to all who read this booklet.


There are two ways of defining wilderness, and we need both. Here is one way:

A wilderness is an area whose predominant character is the result of the interplay of natural processes, large enough and so situated as to be unaffected, except in minor ways, by what takes place in the non-wilderness around it.

We accept the idea of man using the wilderness for recreation; and we accept a trail, a simple campsite, or even a short fence or fire lookout, so long as the predominant character of wilderness remains. We also accept certain management and protection practices, when the object is to minimize the influence of man, without interfering with the normal interplay of natural processes.

The definition is sufficiently flexible to adapt to peculiar local conditions, and it recognizes that natural processes, in time, can restore to wilderness, areas previously abused and impaired. This kind of definition, based upon the physical characteristics of the area, is, perhaps, the best basis for determining management, use, and protection practices.

But wilderness also needs to be regarded as a quality—defined in terms of personal experience, feelings, or benefits. This is even more difficult to define in exact terms that will satisfy everybody. But, certain qualities must be present to provide that type of experience which the National Parks were established to perpetuate. These include:

  • A scene or vista of unusual natural interest or beauty.

  • An area secluded or removed from the sight, sounds, and odors of mechanization and man-made intrusions.

  • A spot where one can feel personally removed from modern civilization.

  • A place where one can experience a feeling of adventure such as the pioneer might have felt in conquering the frontiers.

  • A condition where full enjoyment depends upon one's own perception, physical skill, and self-reliance.

* * *

Wilderness is a physical condition. Wilderness is also a state of mind. Both concepts are important—the former in matters of protection and management, the latter in evaluating the benefits of wilderness, both in planning for the intelligent and beneficial use of this important cultural and recreational heritage.

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Last Modified: Sat, Feb 1 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

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