Frequently Asked Questions About Wilderness

What is the National Wilderness Preservation System?

Established in the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) is the network of federal lands and waters designated by Congress as wilderness areas. The NWPS began with 54 wilderness areas in 13 states. Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes more than 800 designated wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

What federal agency manages the most acres of wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System?

The National Park Service (NPS) – we manage over 44 million acres of designated wilderness!

What is wilderness character?

The term "wilderness character" was first referenced in the Wilderness Act. The Act states that each area administering any area designated as wilderness, including the NPS, shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area.

Wilderness character is a holistic concept based on the interaction of (1) biophysical environments primarily free from modern human manipulation and impact, (2) personal experiences in natural environments relatively free from the encumbrances and signs of modern society, and (3) symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence that inspire human connection with nature.

Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act lists several ‘prohibited uses.’ Are there any exceptions to these prohibitions?

Yes, there are administrative* exceptions to the Wilderness Act’s prohibited uses based on a “minimum requirements analysis” (MRA), a documented process that determines if administrative action is necessary in wilderness, and if so, what method or tool causes the least amount of impact to wilderness resources and character. NPS wilderness managers are responsible for implementing the MRA process in accordance with the Wilderness Act, Section 4(c):

Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

NPS policy describes the MRA concept as a documented two-step process used to determine if administrative actions, projects, or programs that may affect wilderness character, resources, or the visitor experience are necessary, and if so how to minimize impacts.

*In some cases, some prohibited uses are permitted by the public in accordance with other federal laws, like the landing of fixed wing aircraft in Alaska’s federal wilderness per the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Can wildfires be suppressed in federal wilderness?

Yes. Firefighter and public safety are the first priorities in every fire management activity. However, wilderness character must be fully considered during all fire management actions. Additional information about wildland fire management in the NPS is available to learn more.

Do wildfires contribute to ecosystem function and wilderness character preservation?

Yes. In many NPS wilderness areas, fires resulting from natural ignitions are considered a natural process that contributes to ecosystem function and is necessary to maintain wilderness in an unimpaired condition.

Is wilderness character considered during fire management actions?

Yes. Wilderness character considerations begin with the development of a Fire Management Plan and continues through the management of individual wildfires and implementation of fuel treatments and post-fire actions.

Last updated: March 13, 2024