Wilderness Value

A man shown in silhouette against a brilliant night sky sits in contemplation of the galaxy from his rock perch at Yellowstone National Park.
A man sits in silhouette against a brilliant night sky in contemplation of the Milky Way from his wilderness perch at Yellowstone National Park.

NPS / Neal Herbert

In wilderness, we preserve more than just opportunities for backpacking and beautiful vistas: we preserve complex ecosystems, glimpses of the how the world once was, and a place where we, as individuals or as a nation, can reflect upon the paths we have taken. It is our frontier. Dark night skies are a wilderness characteristic, a part that cannot be cut out without leaving the land wanting.

A single glaring light can reel back those seeking solitude or communion with nature, undoing miles of effort. A traveler can trek deep into the mountains, yet still be followed by the glow of distant city lights. The opportunity for stepping back in time, removing ourselves from evidence of human development and infrastructure, must include the nighttime hours.

Wilderness character has been identified to fall within four tangible qualities (Landres, 2008), based upon the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (Congress, 1964):

  • Untrammeled: unhindered and free of modern human control or manipulation

  • Natural: conditions within the range of natural variability, not modified by the effects of humans intentionally or unintentionally

  • Undeveloped: ... with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable

  • Solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation: the opportunity for humans to experience these values, unaffected by signs of modern civilization, encounters with others, or reminders that a developed society exists.

A view of the natural night sky and a landscape free of anthropogenic (human-caused) light contributes to all these qualities, but especially the "solitude or primitive and unconfined" quality of wilderness. In any culture where electricity is available, the wasteful use of outdoor light may become prevalent and an environmental problem, for humans as well as wildlife.

The idea of adequate protection around sensitive areas is widely accepted in ecology. An increasing number of communities near areas of exceptional night sky quality have taken steps to protect this valuable resource. Of the many factors that degrade wilderness character, wasteful or excessive outdoor lighting is the easiest to remedy, and the resource is 100 percent recoverable.


Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service, Preserving Pristine Night Skies in National Parks and the Wilderness Ethic, George Wright Forum, 2001. [64 KB PDF]

Peter Landres and others, Keeping It Wild: An interagency strategy to monitor trends in wilderness character across the National Wilderness Preservation System, USDA Forest Service RMRS-GTR-212, July 2008.

Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136), 88th Congress, Second Session, September 3, 1964

Last updated: August 25, 2023