Introduction to Wilderness

Wilderness is, on its most basic level, land that has not been previously developed or inhabited by humans. The Wilderness Act of 1964 sets forth the legal definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act goes on to describe wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land” which “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable.” In accordance with the Act, wilderness is designated by Congress on federal public lands as the highest form of protection for federal lands.

Allowed Activities in Wilderness

  • Hunting (except in national park wilderness) and fishing
  • Hiking, backpacking, and camping
  • Float trips, canoeing, kayaking
  • Horseback riding and pack trips
  • Outfitting and guiding
  • Wheelchairs (including certain motorized wheelchairs)
  • Scientific research and nature study
  • Control of fire, and insect and disease outbreaks
  • Livestock grazing and related facilities, where previously established
  • Mining on pre-existing mining claims
  • Continued use of tracts of private or state land that may be within the boundaries of some wilderness areas, with reasonable access

Prohibited Activities in Wilderness

  • Road building
  • Oil and gas drilling
  • Logging
  • Mechanical vehicles such as dirt bikes and off-road vehicles (certain motorized wheelchairs are allowed)
  • New mining claims
  • New reservoirs, power lines, pipelines

Designating New Wilderness

The Wilderness Act sets the national policy for protecting the areas Congress places in our National Wilderness Preservation System, but leaves it to the initiative of Congress to decide which specific lands should be protected. An act of Congress is required to designate new wilderness areas. Therefore, beautiful yet endangered wild places gain the protection of wilderness only when a member of Congress champions them—often after having been persuaded to do so by local citizen groups rallying together on behalf of a treasured special place they know, love, and wish to see protected for future generations.

This work continues, year after year ... right now. In states across the country, citizen groups have been doing field studies and preparing their "locally-grown" citizen proposals for new wilderness areas they are asking Congress to approve. Their work includes organizing ever-broader public support to encourage their local members of Congress to introduce legislation and work to pass it.