Where is wilderness?

Wildlands once spread far and wide across the Earth. Today, only fragments of untrammeled lands remain.

Do you know?

Question: Do you know what “untrammeled” means? Chose from the four choices below:

A. No footprints left behind
B. Free and unconstrained
C. No buses or trams
D. Untrampled

Answer: The correct answer is "B." If you chose "B" you are correct! Many people read the word “untrammeled” as “untrampled,” meaning, “not stepped on.” Yet the word “untrammeled” means something much different. A “trammel” is a net used for catching fish, or a device used to keep horses from walking. To trammel something is to catch, shackle , or restrain it. Untrammeled means something is refers to being free or unrestrained. So, Wilderness wilderness areas are to be unconstrained by humans. Zahniser defined “untrammeled” in the Wilderness Act as “not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces.”

When the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, many wild places with campgrounds, hotels, lodges, boardwalks , and scenic overlooks existed for American s visitors to enjoy. What Congress wanted to preserve through the Wilderness Act were wild places free from these developments so future generations could catch a glimpse of what America used to be like. In Wilderness wilderness a tree can rot where it falls, a waterfall can spill over without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan can float on uncontaminated water, and a visitor can hike or horseback -ride the trails or float the waters without interruption from the sights or sounds of our motorized vehicles and mechanized society objects.

Here is why the other answers are incorrect.

A. Leaving no footprints, or no evidence of your visit, behind when you visit wilderness is important. In fact, seven Leave No Trace principles [link to You section where 7 principles are] for wilderness and backcountry travel and camping were created to help guide and educate visitors about how their visits can impact wilderness. However, this isn’t what untrammeled means. Select “free and unconstrained” to learn about the meaning of untrammeled.

C. While it is true that no mechanized vehicles are allowed in wilderness areas, that is not considered in the definition of untrammeled. Select “free and unconstrained” to learn about the meaning of untrammeled.

D. Untrammeled and untrampled certainly sound similar, but that little difference has a huge effect on the meaning. To trample something is to crush it with your foot, while trammel means to restrict or constrain something. Can you see the different now? Select “free and unconstrained” to learn more about the meaning of untrammeled.

In North America, we find these lands mostly in wilderness. In 1964 Congress designated America’s first federal wilderness areas. Collectively, these areas are called the National Wilderness Preservation System. Between 1964 and 2004, the system has grown from 9 million acres (3,643,300 ha) to 106 million acres (42,898,200 ha) and contains 662 wilderness areas in 44 of 50 states. Overall, however, only about 5% of the entire United States - an area slightly larger than the state of California's protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains more than half of America ’s wilderness, only about 2.5% of the contiguous United States - an area about the size of South Dakota - is protected as wilderness.

Some people think that wilderness is only found in remote places like towering mountains or vast sandy deserts. What do you think? The National Wilderness Preservation System actually preserves a wide variety of ecosystems throughout the country including swamps in the Southeast, tundra in Alaska , snowcapped peaks in the Rocky Mountains , hardwoods forests in the Northeast, and deserts in the Southwest. More than half of these diverse wilderness areas are within a day’s drive of America ’s largest cities. For some examples of wilderness areas, go to the "Up Close" section of this module.

Do you know?

Question: Which of these states does not have any wilderness?

A. Hawaii
B. New York
C. Oregon
D. Connecticut

Answer: Connecticut

Do you know?

Question: Which state has the most wilderness areas (130)?

A. Texas
B. California
C. Michigan
D. Alaska

Answer: California

Interview with Tom MacFadden - Outdoor Recreational Planner, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Its proximity to New York, to Times Square, is about 26 miles and it’s an escape for many, many people to come out here. I mean, imagine you’re in an area where there’s approximately 40 million people within less than a day’s drive, yet you have this oasis in the middle of an urban area. It’s totally surrounded by urbanization – people’s backyards etcetera. It’s an island of wilderness located here, and it’s about 12 square miles, I believe. People come from all over just to hike it, to get away, to experience solitude.

Interview with Meg Weesner - Chief of Resources Management, Saguaro National Park

Wilderness as defined in the Wilderness Act should be a place where man’s works are substantially unnoticeable. You really feel like you’re in an area the way it was meant to be. In nature and not influenced by humans. So when Saguaro’s wilderness sits right at the edge of Tucson, with the potential for so many visitors, that creates a real challenge for us to maintain that social setting of getting away from it all as well as reducing the physical impacts that people might create. As one might expect, right on the border of the wilderness, where it’s more accessible, right near the trailheads, when you first get in, we do have a lot of visitor use there, and you may run into a lot of other horseback users, or people hiking. But because our wilderness is so rugged, it’s a very steep climb into the back country, around 6000 feet elevation gain, not many people get there and it’s really amazing that you can be out in the very heart of our wilderness after a long day’s hike and hardly see anyone.et elevation gain, not many people get there and it’s really amazing that you can be out in the very heart of our wilderness after a long day’s hike and hardly see anyone.

Interview with Steve Bair - Backcountry & Wilderness Trails, Shenandoah National Park

Much of Shenandoah’s wilderness is located only within 80 miles of Washington , D.C. , one of the largest urban areas in the country, and Shenandoah wilderness is also within a day’s drive of most of the Eastern s S eaboard. Shenandoah’s an important place of wilderness for people to come and learn about wilderness, so that they can apply their knowledge to other wilderness areas throughout the country. It’s important for people to be able to find that little slice of wilderness so close to home. And although the Shenandoah wilderness may not match many people’s sense of what they consider to be true wilderness, it still is a wilderness preserved so that it is very primitive, and we provide for primitive activities; we do work within the Wilderness Act to preserve wilderness conditions, wilderness values, and I think it’s particularly important to the folks on the Eastern Seaboard to know that they have this wilderness that they can come to enjoy, that there is that primitive slice of America really not that far from their back door.

Interactive Map

Ever wonder where the closest wilderness area is to your home? Or which wilderness areas are in your state? Or where a particular wilderness area is? Wilderness.net has an interactive map online where you can find the answers to these (and many other) questions. Open up the National Wilderness Preservation System website to begin exploring.

If you are more interesting in learn about some wilderness areas in detail, then skip ahead to the Up Close section in this module. From there you can learn about select wilderness areas, from why they were designated to current management issues.

Facts and Figures

Growth of the National Wilderness Preservation System

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. These areas established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Since 1964, the System has grown almost every year and now includes 662 areas totaling 106 million acres. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest single addition. 1984 marks the year when the most new wilderness areas were added.

Some people think that wilderness is found only in big western states or in Alaska. Actually, all but six states have federal designated wilderness; Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island are the only states without designated wilderness. Of the total acreage that has been designated to date (2004), more than half, 54%, are found in Alaska. That’s more than 57 million acres (23 million ha)! Hawaii contains about 4 million acres (1.6 million ha) of wilderness, and the rest is found in the contiguous 48 states, with California containing the most wilderness acres.

Facts at a glance

Current number of wilderness areas - 662
Smallest wilderness - Pelican Island ( Florida ) (5 acres [2 ha])
Largest wilderness - Wrangell-Saint Elias ( Alaska ) (9,078,675 acres [3,674,140 ha])
Largest wilderness complex (contiguous wilderness) - Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wildernesses ( Alaska ) (12,743,329 acres [5,157,063])
Largest wilderness complex in the contiguous United States - Frank Church–River of No Return and Gospel Hump Wildernesses ( Idaho ) (2,572,553 acres [1,041,112 ha])
Second largest wilderness complex in the contiguous United States - Wildernesses in central California consisting of the southern half of the Yosemite Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Monarch Wilderness, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness, and the South Sierra Wilderness (2,255,383 acres [912,754 ha])

States with the most wilderness - Alaska (57 million acres [23,067,900 ha]), California (14 million acres [5,665,800 ha]), Arizona (4.5 million acres [2,185,380 ha]), Washington (4.3 million acres [1,740,210 ha]), Idaho (4 million acres [1,618,800 ha])

Newest wilderness areas - 17 wilderness areas in southern Nevada created under the 2002 Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act

Source of information: Wilderness.net (August 2004).


Wilderness Acreage by Agency (Acres)

Bureau of Land Management: 6,512,227 acres

Fish and Wildlife Service: 20,699,108 acres

Forest Service: 34,867,591 acres

National Park Service: 43,616,250 acres

Total Acreage: nearly 106 million acres

Source of Data: Wilderness.net (August 2004)


Wilderness Acreage by Agency (Percent)

Bureau of Land Management: 6 percent

Fish and Wildlife Service: 20 percent

Forest Service: 33 percent

National Park Service: 41 percent

Total Acreage: nearly 106 million acres

Source of Data: Wilderness.net (August 2004)


Wilderness Units by Agency (Number)

Bureau of Land Management: 161 units

Fish and Wildlife Service: 71 units

Forest Service: 406 units

National Park Service: 54 units

Total Units: 692 units. This total is greater than the total number of wilderness areas because some areas are managed by more than one agency.

Source of Data: Wilderness.net (August 2004)


Wilderness Units by Agency (Percent)

Bureau of Land Management: 23 percent

Fish and Wildlife Service: 10 percent

Forest Service: 59 percent

National Park Service: 7 percent

Total Units: 692 units. This total is greater than the total number of wilderness areas because some areas are managed by more than one agency.

Source of Data: Wilderness.net (August 2004)


Wilderness Acres Added by Year (Annual and Cumulative Acres)

Year Acres per year Cumulative acres
1964 9,139,721 9,139,721
1965 0 9,139,721
1966 0 9,139,721
1967 0 9,139,721
1968 792,750 9,932,471
1969 161,500 10,093,971
1970 199,132 10,293,103
1971 0 10,293,103
1972 913,937 11,207,040
1973 0 11,207,040
1974 343,991 11,551,031
1975 1,354,974 12,906,005
1976 1,771,422 14,677,427
1977 0 14,677,427
1978 5,501,075 20,178,502
1979 0 20,178,502
1980 60,755,145 80,933,647
1981 0 80,933,647
1982 21,841 80,955,488
1983 320,373 81,275,861
1984 8,207,757 89,483,618
1985 13,300 89,496,918
1986 70,277 89,567,195
1987 189,745 89,756,940
1988 1,798,850 91,555,790
1989 733,400 92,289,190
1990 2,767,760 95,056,950
1991 36,085 95,093,035
1992 400,450 95,493,485
1993 674,760 96,168,245
1994 7,661,089 103,829,334
1995 0 103,829,334
1996 37,936 103,867,270
1997 160 103,867,430
1998 0 103,867,430
1999 49,819 103,917,249
2000 1,031,706 104,948,955
2001 0 104,948,955
2002 529,604 105,478,559

Wilderness Sites Added by Year (Annual and Cumulative Sites)

Year Sites per year Cumulative sites
1964 54 54
1965 0 54
1966 0 54
1967 0 54
1968 5 59
1969 2 61
1970 23 84
1971 0 84
1972 7 91
1973 0 91
1974 2 93
1975 35 128
1976 34 162
1977 0 162
1978 26 188
1979 0 188
1980 70 258
1981 0 258
1982 2 260
1983 6 266
1984 175 441
1985 1 442
1986 10 452
1987 12 464
1988 9 473
1989 13 486
1990 55 541
1991 2 543
1992 5 548
1993 9 557
1994 68 625
1995 0 625
1996 1 626
1997 0 626
1998 0 626
1999 3 629
2000 15 644
2001 0 644
2002 18 662


Do you know?

Question: Who was president in 1980 and signed ANILCA into law?

Answer: Jimmy Carter

Do you know?

Question: In what year was the most new wilderness added to the National Wilderness Preservation System?

Answer: 1984

Do you know?

Question: By what percentage has the National Wilderness Preservation System grown since 1964?

Answer: 1160% or 11.6 times

Do you know?

Question: Not including 1980, during which years has the most acreage been added to the National Wilderness Preservation System?

Answer: 1964, 1984, 1994

Do you know?

Question: In how many years were no new wilderness areas designated?

Answer: 12. They are 1965, 1966, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2001.

Do you know?

Question: Are there years when acreage was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, yet no new wilderness areas were designated?

Answer: Yes.

Do you know?

Question: What does this imply?

Answer: This implies that new acreage was added to existing wilderness areas.


How Does An Area Become Designated Wilderness?

Only Congress can designate wilderness; however, just about anyone can recommend wilderness to their elected representatives in Congress. Often these recommendations come from federal land management agencies or citizens, and sometimes they work together to develop a recommendation. Once recommended to Congress, both the House and the Senate must agree on which areas should be designated and their exact boundaries. After the House and Senate agree, the proposal is forwarded to the president to sign into law or veto. Historically, only one veto has occurred: in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. However, during his administration in 1984, more new wilderness areas were designated than in any other year.

Interview with Tim Devine - Wilderness Program Specialist, Rocky Mountain National Park

Under the Wilderness Act all four land management agencies are directed to look at their lands to see if they have wilderness character and values and are suitable for becoming designated wilderness. That’s kind of the first step that’s looked at in an assessment process for federal lands. Under that suitability, it’s determined for lands, if there are lands within the National Park or the US Forest Service, or BLM areas, or Fish and Wildlife Service areas, that hold those characteristics and values outlined by the Wilderness Act. From there a formal Wilderness study is then conducted on those lands to look at those things in more detail. From that Wilderness study, then that leads into a proposal and a recommendation for ultimate designation, hopefully. The findings and conclusions of that formal wilderness study are what’s forwarded to the department of the interior by the director of the agency, such as the director of the National Park Service, and that’s basically what is proposed for lands to be included in Wilderness within that area. The secretary looks that over, and looks the proposal over, may change it, may approve it as is, and once they are satisfied with that proposal, then it’s the secretary’s responsibility then to recommend that to the President of the United States. The President then looks at it and evaluates it. At that time, it becomes recommended Wilderness, when it passes from the Department of the Interior, or the Department of Agriculture if its forest service land, to the President. At that point, it’s the responsibility of the President to transmit the recommendation to Congress. It’s only Congress who can actually designate an area as Wilderness, but there’s all those steps leading up to that. So there’s the Wilderness suitability, then the formal wilderness study, goes on to the proposal, once it’s in the department goes to the President and becomes a recommendation as they transmit it on into Congress. Then Congress ultimately would act on that recommendation.

Each agency has different policies that we use to manage Wilderness. And under Park Service policies for wilderness, any of those classifications (study areas, proposed, recommended, and designated) It doesn’t matter which classification it is, our policies apply to all of those classifications. And the Park Service, for areas other than designated Wilderness, we are to take no actions that would diminish any of the Wilderness suitability of the area that possesses wilderness characteristics and values, and protect that area in such a way the characteristics and values are not diminished until such time until Congress acts on that official designation.

A flow chart shows the process of how an area becomes designated wilderness

First, State or federal land management agencies or governments, organized groups, individual citizens, or YOU begin the process. This entails recommending the area to become wilderness. Second, Congress (House of Representatives and the Senate) receive the recommendation and consider the issue. If they agree, they pass a bill that proposes designating the area as a wilderness. Third, the bill is sent to the President. The President either signs or vetoes the bill. If he signs the bill, then the area becomes designated as wilderness.

Why are some wildlands not designated as wilderness?

It takes an act of Congress to designate an area as wilderness. However, Congress must take the opinions of all American citizens into consideration when debating whether or not to designate an area as wilderness. As you might expect, this process can take years, even decades. For example in the National Park Service, recommendations dating back to the late 1970s still exist for 13 national parks, three national monuments, and one national seashore. This is why some lands that have been recommended to Congress have been designated as wilderness and some lands, such as areas in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks , have not. In other cases, lands studied by the land management agencies were not considered suitable for wilderness designation.

What characteristics do you think make an area suitable to become wilderness?

Some practical questions used to determine suitability include:

Some wildlands that do not meet the criteria for suitability as wilderness are designated as national parks, national forests, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national conservation areas, national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails.




Introductory Video Text

Introduction to wilderness

What is wilderness?

Where is wilderness?

Why did U.S. citizens feel the need to legally protect wilderness?

How is wilderness managed?

Who is involved with wilderness today?

Wilderness up close

How can you help?



Wilderness Index

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