How is wilderness managed?

Some people thought that passing the Wilderness Act meant the fight for wilderness was over. After all, it states that wilderness is supposed to be an area where the influence of modernization is absent. Over time however, we have learned that the “draw a line around it and leave it alone” method does not protect wilderness from current threats. Only in the last 20 years or so has wilderness management or stewardship emerged as a necessary discipline to combat these threats.

Two agencies oversee wilderness - the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Under the authority of these agencies, four bureaus manage wilderness: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and National Park Service. These bureaus get their direction for management from the Wilderness Act, which states,

“these areas shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” Section 2(a)

“each agency…shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area” Section 4(b)

You might think managing wilderness would be easy given the direction provided by the Wilderness Act. In reality, managing wilderness is a complicated process. Managers are expected to strike a balance between use and protection. An inherent tension exists in the language of the Wilderness Act: allowing all Americans to visit wilderness anytime and to enjoy its benefits, and simultaneously preserving wilderness. Yet, visitors can unknowingly change wilderness character, and it is this quality of wilderness that the Wilderness Act also instructs the agencies to preserve.

Do You Know?

Question: Why is managing wilderness challenging?

Answer: The inherent tension in the Wilderness Act’s language means that managers must balance the preservation of wilderness character while allowing all Americans to visit wilderness. Management can be challenging when these mandates are in conflict with one another.

Interview with Don Neubacher, Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore

Wilderness management is pretty complex, and it’s a great challenge. There’s this really big debate about how you keep a place wild, but also keep it natural, because parks are islands in a sense and they’re often limited in what kind of natural processes are occurring. Fire’s a great example: they don’t burn as much as they used to. So, managing exotics is difficult because you don’t want to bring in mechanical equipment. You don’t want to ruin people’s solitude and wild experience, so it’s often difficult to make the two match. However, if we don’t go in and do active resource management we could lose that wild quality over time. So, it’s a balance of going in at specific times, doing treatments, getting out of there, and minimizing the sort of impacts that we have on people going into the backcountry. So, we want to keep the wildness, but we also want to keep the naturalness. There’s a balancing act that’s going on, almost on a daily basis, definitely on a yearly basis, on how we manage wilderness.

Wilderness Managing Agencies

Four land management agencies, under two departments - the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture - have been given the awesome responsibility of managing the diverse National Wilderness Preservation System. While each agency maintains its own specific management mission, all have been successful in finding ways to mesh their independent missions with wilderness management goals and objectives.

Common to all wilderness-managing agencies is the guidance and direction that is provided by the Wilderness Act. Although other wilderness legislation is followed when applicable, the Wilderness Act bonds theses agencies together in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of America’s wilderness system.

The congressionally designated wildlands of this country have been entrusted to the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and the National Park Service. All of these agencies strive to meet the challenge of managing the American legacy of wilderness for the use and enjoyment of the people today and in the future.

Do You Know?

Question: Which agencies are managed under the Department of Interior?

Answer: Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service

Do You Know?

Question: Which agency is managed under the Department of Agriculture?

Answer: Forest Service

To learn more about these bureaus, read the short descriptions below:

Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management manages nearly 270 million acres (more than 109 million ha) of wilderness and non-wilderness land. Among other activities, the Bureau of Land Management conserves these lands and their historical and cultural resources for the public’s use and enjoyment.

Purpose : Initially to manage rangelands for use by mining, grazing, and oil and gas development. Their role expanded to include recreation and wilderness after 1976.

Federal department : Interior

Land management : 42% of federal lands and 6% of the National Wilderness Preservation System; uses 38 administrative units to manage 160 wilderness areas.


Fish and Wildlife Service

The Fish and Wildlife Service conserves the nation’s wild animals and their habitats by managing a system of more than 500 national wildlife refuges and other areas, totaling more than 91 million acres (36.8 million ha) of land and water.

Purpose : To conserve, protect, and enhance fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Fish and Wildlife administers the Endangered Species Act.

Federal department : Interior

Land management : manages 15% of federal lands and 20% of the National Wilderness Preservation System; uses 64 administrative units to manage 71 wilderness areas.


Forest Service

The Forest Service manages national forests and grasslands. It conducts forestry research and works with forest managers on state and private lands. The Forest Service oversees about 200 million acres (80.9 million ha) of national forest and other lands.

Purpose : To provide for the wise use of our national forest resources. This multiple use concept includes recreation, wildlife, wilderness, timber, mining, grazing, oil and gas, hunting, and fishing.

Federal department : Agriculture

Land management : 30% Federal Lands and 33% of the National Wilderness Preservation System; uses 117 administrative units to manage 406 wilderness areas.


National Park Service

The National Park Service was established to protect the nation’s natural, historical, and cultural resources and to provide places for recreation. The National Park Service manages 51 national parks. It also oversees more than 300 national monuments, historic sites, memorials, seashores, and battlefields.

Purpose : To provide for the use and enjoyment of the parks by people and to preserve the land in its original state.

Federal department : Interior

Land management : 13% of federal lands and 42% of the National Wilderness Preservation System; uses 46 administrative units to manage 54 wilderness areas.


Threats to Wilderness

The value of wilderness depends upon the degree to which it remains undeveloped - a contrast to the highly developed world in which most of us live. However, designating areas as wilderness does not ensure sanctuary from events that threaten wild character. Even the ecosystems in these most protected of public lands are threatened. Wilderness is vulnerable to threats from both inside and outside of its boundaries. The demand for economic growth and a growing population exert significant pressures on wilderness. Many of these pressures are the same threats that other public lands face: overuse, fire suppression, invasive species, pollution, and lack of public awareness.

Do You Know?

Question: What are the five major threats to wilderness?

Answer: Overuse, fire suppression, invasive species, pollution, lack of public awareness


The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave land managers a difficult and challenging mandate. Wilderness areas are to be kept in a wild and natural state - relatively free of human control - while, at the same time, providing for their use and enjoyment. Recreational use of wilderness has increased 10 times in the past 40 years and more than 12 million people now visit wilderness each year as of 2004. If too many people visit the same place too many times, or if people don’t know how to “leave no trace” of their visit, the area looses its natural quality. Some places are so beat-up that trails and campsites have become like city sidewalks, plants no longer grow, animals have little food, and the compacted soil encourages run-off. It can take a long time to repair these places once they become damaged, so if we are not careful, we can love wilderness to death.

Interview with Ruth Scott - Natural Resource Specialist, Olympic National Park

I think probably the most challenging aspect of wilderness management right now is the high levels of use we get. As a result of those high levels of use, there’s a lot of impact. Up in the sub-alpine areas, the heather-huckleberry community because its so fragile, there’s a lot of impacts that can occur in a very short time. Managing the visitors for high quality wilderness experience, and also, protecting the resource. Finding a balance there is one of the more critical aspects of the job.

Fire Suppression

Some people think of fire as a bad thing, but natural fire cycles are important to create and maintain ecosystems that are protected in wilderness. When fire occurs naturally, it causes new types of plants to grow, which are important for animal to eat and it destroys invasive plants that typically do not grow there. When we suppress fire or eliminate it from an ecosystem, unnatural species and quantities of plants can take over the landscape. This results in unhealthy ecosystems. When a single bolt of lightening or spark from a careless human ignites these unhealthy ecosystems, they can burn so hot that even the remaining soil cannot support plant life.

Interview with Kathleen Harksen - Assistant Manager, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

...the vegetation communities in these habitats, in these islands in the sky, in the ponderosa forest generally, typically evolved with the use of fire... ...Because we have this valuable habitat and this valuable recreation area at risk of loss we will look very closely at trying to reduce the risk of this catastrophic fire. We will use prescribed fire, ...and try to get the amount of biomass on the landscape down, open up the forest canopy a bit and get grasses and forbs back on the ground so that it would be able to carry very low intensity, frequent fires, maintain the understory vegetation for wildlife and recreation and be sustainable to natural- and human-caused perturbations.

Invasive Species

Almost half of all endangered species are threatened by plants, animals, and insects that do not normally live along side them. These invasive or exotic species compete with native species for food, water, and sunlight. Sometimes, they even kill the native plants. For example, white pine blister rust, a disease that kills white-bark pine trees, has spread to nearly all wilderness areas where white-bark pine trees grow. This disease affects more than the trees, for example, loss of trees means loss of seeds—a primary food source for grizzly bears. Nearly every wilderness suffers the harmful impacts of invasive species.

Interview with Craig Bitler - Wildlife Biologist, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Oh, do we have invasive. But we’re making great headway. We had purple loosestrife. We still have purple loosestrife. We had about 150 acres of it, and we raised a quarter million beetles. I don’t know if you’re familiar with, quickly, they did allow beetles to be brought in from Europe after 8 or 9 years of research, they didn’t want to cause a problem with these beetles so they found 20-some beetles eating loosestrife in Europe where loosestrife is not a problem, and the USDA would only allow in beetles that were not eating anything else other than loosestrife. So they found that 5 of those 20-some odd beetles or insects were locked in, genetically locked in to loosestrife so they did allow those to be brought in. We raised, I raised a quarter million of those just out back here and I also obtained another quarter million, so I released a half million of those beetles. And they’ve taken out, excuse me, 60 acres of loosestrife so far, 60-70 acres. So that’s worked well.


Until recently, wilderness managers focused primarily on keeping wilderness from being loved to death. Today, however, we are finding more and more that what people do outside wilderness directly affects what happens inside wilderness. For example, wind can blow air pollution from cities, factories, and coal-burning power plants into wilderness areas; when pollution is precipitated out of the atmosphere as rain or snow, it may fall in wilderness and change the natural balance of the lakes found there. This, in turn, can kill the food that fish eat; when fish die, larger animals that eat fish, like raccoons and bears, do not have the food they need.

Two other types of pollution, though less well known than air and water pollution, are affecting wilderness ecosystems and visitor experiences. Today, even remote areas are being exposed to increased illumination from light pollution or “sky glow,” the combined lights of cities and towns, sometimes hundreds of miles away that produce a dull glow in the night sky.

Night skies can be rated by their limiting magnitude-a term astronomers use to describe the faintest star visible to the naked eye. Magnitude 7 is the faintest star typically visible, while the brightest stars in the sky are magnitude 0. A total of 15,000 stars are visible under a magnitude 7 sky, characteristic of a sky without light pollution. Heavily lighted urban areas typically have a limiting magnitude of 3 or 4, where only a couple hundred stars are visible.

Astronomers were the first to notice the effects of sky glow, as faint celestial objects billions of miles away began to disappear from their telescopes. Now other scientists, primarily ecologists, are realizing that the ecosystem effects of artificial night light can be subtle to severe. For billions of years, life has evolved with established day and night cycles that both nocturnal and diurnal species have adapted to. For example, many birds migrate at night using the stars and glow of dusk and dawn for directional orientation. Many nocturnal reptiles and amphibians use darkness to their advantage to hunt and forage. For diurnal species, those that are awake during the day and sleep at night, nighttime is important for finding shelter and hiding. Ecological, light pollution changes these normal behaviors, especially for organisms that require certain degrees of darkness and are far more sensitive to light levels than humans are. These organisms are correspondingly more affected by light level changes. In addition to having ecological effects, light pollution affects wilderness character. It’s difficult to imagine camping “underneath the stars” without the view of the cosmos above. Even today, however, one must often travel to the most remote places to experience truly dark skies.

Forecasts were made using the growth in population combined with light use per capita which show there will be precious few dark places left by 2025. Two-thirds of Americans can no longer glimpse the Milky Way from their backyards, and children born today have a one in ten chance of ever experiencing a truly dark night sky.

Similarly, sound pollution affects both the ecological and social aspects of wilderness. Birds, insects, mammals, and amphibians rely on complex communication networks to live and reproduce. In habitats where wildlife vocalizations signify mating calls, danger from predators, or territorial claims, hearing these sounds is essential to animal survival and interruptions from unnatural sounds can change animal behaviors. In addition, visitors to wilderness have an expectation of seeing, hearing, and experiencing phenomena associated with a specific natural environment. The sounds made by wind, birds, geysers, elk, wolves, and waterfalls, for example—not chainsaws, car alarms, cell phones, or airplanes—are associated with a desirable wilderness experience.

Other types of pollution can affect wilderness as well. Read the following examples and interviews for more information.

Interview with Meg Weesner - Chief Natural Resources, Saguaro National Park

Wilderness should be an area that’s really controlled by nature, where man’s impact really isn’t seen or felt or heard very much. So one of the challenges at Saguaro Wilderness, right next to the city of Tucson, is to maintain that feeling of solitude and being away from urban development and other people and human works … Just as an example, you can hear an aircraft flying overhead. We’ve got an Air Force base in the town of Tucson as well as a commercial airport. And there’re a lot of flight training schools as well, mostly with small aircraft. So in many parts of our wilderness we’re a little hindered from the ideal wilderness conditions because you do hear these aircraft overhead. It’s something we try to manage, but knowing that we’re right underneath the flight path for a major airport and right under training paths, it’s a challenge for us.

Interview with Sarah Allen - Science Advisor, Point Reyes National Seashore

Most of the coastal strand in Point Reyes is in wilderness, and that’s unusual. One of the conflicts we run into is that people don’t realize (not just the general public, but a lot of agencies) this is wilderness and when we have oil spills they want to throw in all of the equipment to clean up for a spill. We do want to have these beaches cleaned up, but it has to be done in a measured way with a specific strategy, so that we’re not harming more than we’re helping. We certainly found this out with the Exxon Valdez where the methods used for clean-up, in some cases, caused more damage than the oil itself. Point Reyes suffers a lot of oil spills. One, because we’re near to the San Francisco Bay Area and there’s a lot of shipping that goes on, and because we’re this big peninsula that sticks out and it’s like a hook, capturing boats and oil. The currents that work around the headlands deposit lots of oil. So we have a long history of oil spills, and we’re working in concert with state agencies and federal agencies on oil spill response and recovery. This is one of the key issues: how to take care of oil spills in wilderness areas. It’s a challenge that I don’t know if other national parks suffer, but we do here quite a bit.

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

..we have had townships apply for permits to discharge more of their treated sewage into the refuge. There are two sewage treatment plants that dump directly into that. They want to increase their capacities to dump more, we don’t want any more nutrients, even though they possibly may be treating it more, but then when you have floods they have an emergency discharge and this kind of thing. So it’s a constant battle, plus with people building up to the boundary you get more runoff from non point source pollution - people’s front lawns, roadways, you have all this stuff constantly you know it’s a constant battle. You have to be a watchdog. You have to constantly monitor the water surrounding the refuge, coming into the refuge, and going out. And that’s what we do. And along with encroachments on the boundaries, well, we walk the boundary constantly. We have people walking it for encroachments. So, encroachments could be people dumping their grass clippings into wilderness or their leaves - the cutting of trees. We’ve even had people erect a basketball court, one time, into part of the refuge. These are things you constantly have to keep under surveillance.

Case Study - Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Since the late 1990s the park has become an increasingly popular border crossing for drug smugglers and illegal entrants. The Border Patrol estimates that 500 people per day, or 180,000 per year, cross through the park as illegal entrants. It also estimates that 700,000 pounds of drugs entered the US illegally through the park in the year 2000. Some steps have already been taken to address these issues including: remote cameras and sensors; increased patrols; and a vehicle barrier along the entire length of the park’s border with Mexico.

Interview with Kathy Billings, Superintendent, Organ Pipe Cactus NM:

Management of the wilderness of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of the most difficult challenges we have in the park, and in the Park Service. The illegal immigrants who are entering the park on a annual basis may exceed 200,000 per year. The impact on the wilderness is incredible. There are large amounts of trash, many trails, many people passing through an area that you would expect to see no one. And the solitude and the naturalness of the area has been highly affected by this immigration. The management difficulties are in terms of using minimum tool to deal with the issue of illegal immigration and law enforcement interdiction. And then the restoration of wilderness that has been impacted by this…requires that we strive to become very creative and proactive in terms of wilderness management where there are no answers.

The level of environmental damage on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and other public and tribal lands is staggering. The thousands of illegal entrants, including drug and human traffickers, are causing significant harm to sensitive ecosystems. Hundreds of illegal roads and trails scar pristine lands, tons of trash left behind present risks of biohazards to humans and wildlife, risk of wildfire increases significantly with fires set by illegal entrants, and endangered species and their habitat are threatened.

Text from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Environmental Assessment Update for Border Enforcement Activities. Issue 2, May 2004. This article may be viewed online at

Case Study - Fire Island National Seashore, New York

Fire Island is known for its spectacular open beaches, far removed from the sights and sounds and traffic of the city. Keeping it that way was the impetus behind the establishment of Fire Island National Seashore more than forty years ago (in 1964), and the designation of the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dunes Wilderness in 1980.

Sanitation and garbage disposal on a fragile barrier island is a sensitive issue. To keep the beach clean and healthy in a cost efficient manner is no simple task, especially when everything must go by water.

Some of the island's garbage also comes by water in the form of marine debris. Every tide brings new trash or treasures from the sea. Lifeguards at Watch Hill and Sailors Haven keep their designated beaches picked up every morning. Each year, the park participates in The Ocean Conservancy's annual coastal cleanup effort.

Where does the marine litter come from? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, marine debris, defined as any man-made, solid material that enters our waterways directly (e.g., by dumping) or indirectly (e.g., washed out to sea via rivers, streams, storm drains, etc.), includes objects ranging from detergent bottles, hazardous medical wastes, and discarded fishing line. It's estimated that 80% of the litter that washes ashore got into the ocean indirectly. In addition to being unsightly, it poses a serious threat to everything with which it comes into contact. Marine debris can be life-threatening to marine organisms and humans and can wreak havoc on coastal communities and the fishing industry.

Some of Fire Island's beach trash drops in from the sky. In recent years, the number of helium and mylar balloons littering the beach and invading the wilderness area has grown considerably. Bobbing around on the dune vegetation, these balloons may startle nesting piping plovers and terns, as they resemble hovering predators. Floating in the water, these balloons can look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle or other unsuspecting sea creature, leading to the animal's untimely demise when its intestines become blocked with plastic.

Everyone using Fire Island plays a part in keeping its beaches clean and healthy. Don't bring with you any more than you care to carry back off the island. Avoid excessive packaging when you make your purchases, and recycle all that you can. Never release helium-filled balloons, no matter how far you are from the coast. Every effort to reduce the amount of trash you generate in your daily life has the potential to lessen the impact on the resources you care for on Fire Island.

Visit Fire Island online to learn more:


Lack of Public Awareness

It was once said that if something is not understood, it is not valued; if it is not valued, it is not loved; if it is not loved, it is not protected, and if it is not protected, it is lost. Public surveys have found that Americans who know about wilderness value it tremendously, yet those who do not know about or understand wilderness are disconnected from it and do not value it. Research also shows that the majority of Americans simply do not understand what wilderness is, how it shaped our nation, and how they benefit from it—whether or not they ever visit a wilderness area. Even if you never set foot inside a wilderness area, the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the animals you love all have roots deeply imbedded in wilderness.

Interview with Ruth Scott - Natural Resource Specialist, Olympic National Park

The primary message I believe is critical is the value of wild areas. It is important to come into wilderness area and leave no trace if you stay. That’s one of the most basic elements of any visit. But there’s a broader understanding that needs to take place of what it means as a country to have these kinds of areas that are protected specifically for their resource of wildness that the Wilderness Act talks about as an enduring resource, so I guess the message I think is most important is that these areas have been set aside by Congress and we need to continue to ensure that they’re protected for the future generations to enjoy as wild places.


Activities allowed and not allowed in wilderness

Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act states that “there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road … no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no land of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation” within wilderness. However, the Wilderness Act of 1964 also allows for some exceptions to these prohibited uses. Many of these exceptions, or “special provisions,” were debated at length and eventually included in the Wilderness Act to gain its passage. Special provisions allowed in wilderness include grazing, mining, water developments such as dams, and commercial services such as outfitters and guides. Also, the clause, “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act,” speaks to situations such as emergencies that involve the health and safety of persons within a wilderness area. Exceptions for management of fire, insects, and diseases also exist. These exceptions allow managers the flexibility when necessary, but the real challenge is figuring out when these exceptions are truly necessary and when they are simply a matter of convenience. Managers are required to choose the minimum necessary.

Do You Know?

Question: Would riding a bicycle be considered an allowed activity in wilderness?

Answer: No. Although a bicycle does not have a motor, and therefore is not a form of motorized transport, its movement is guided by gears, which are a form of mechanization. Since the Wilderness Act prohibits “other forms of mechanical transport,” bicycles are not allowed in wilderness.

Interview with Darla Sidles - Superintendent, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

The BLM and the National Park Service are both responsible for going through a minimum requirement analysis when looking at proposed projects and activities within either proposed wilderness or on the Park Service lands or designated wilderness on the BLM. This involves first asking if the activity or project is an emergency. If so, it may automatically be exempt from the minimum requirement analysis. This would be the case in situations such as life or death, search and rescue, and human life and safety issues. The second thing would be to ask if this project or activity is a requirement in order to protect the wilderness characteristics. If this activity is something that is needed to restore naturalness or provide additional solitude… If that is the case, then you go on to analyze different alternatives for how you might accomplish that objectives. And, economics is not a consideration. You look at primarily the impacts, the environmental impacts to the wilderness resource. And you determine your purposed action based upon what the best value to the wilderness would be and accomplishing your objectives. This analysis is very important because it allows us to evaluate the different types of tools we might use to get a project done in wilderness.

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

Some of the things that we do in the park that are rather active management in wilderness is the fire management program, trail maintenance programs that we have and some other resource issues like controlling exotic plants and studying wildlife. Sometimes there is a need to use certain kinds of equipment. It can vary anything from helicopters to wheelbarrows to chain saws on occasion. Our park’s strategy on this is we try as best we can to follow the philosophy of wilderness and minimize any of those human kinds of impacts. But when you’re so close to a city, there are some times when other methods really may not be feasible. So our park has a committee to look at the minimum requirement for doing management actions in the wilderness. So we evaluate the different options of say supplying fire crews in the backcountry so that they can carry out a prescribed burn which allows fire to take its natural role in the wilderness – which is good for the vegetation and for the animals, but it needs to be in a way that’s controlled and doesn’t threaten people in Tucson and their property too. So we evaluate all of the tools that we use and look at the alternative tools and try to use the ones that are best for long-term management of the area but also sensitive to its wilderness values.


Real-life Management Scenarios

If you were a wilderness manager, how would you manage your wilderness? Select real-life management scenarios (below) to test your management skills.

Welcome to real-life wilderness management! This exercise has been developed so that you may experience the challenges and complexities of managing a wilderness area. These scenarios are based on actual situations. First, read the minimum-requirement example to see what choices managers made in this situation. Then, try it on your own by reading the other examples. Read each one carefully, using supporting information (provided), then as a manager make the decision that you think is most appropriate for wilderness.

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

Any management action that we take within the recommended wilderness here at Rocky, we need to evaluate under the minimum requirement analysis process. With that, first we look at – Is the action even appropriate to be doing? Bottom line. Is it appropriate to do that sort of action within the wilderness? Once that question is answered, then we need to look at how we are going to do that action and what is the way to go about it that causes the least intrusion, the least impact to the wilderness resource and character. It’s not always the quickest, easiest and most efficient way. It may cost more money, may take more time, and may take more people … Sometimes minimum requirement or minimum tool isn’t necessarily a primitive tool like a lot of folks think of like cross-cut saws or axes, those sorts of non-mechanized, non-motorized pieces of equipment. Sometimes the minimum tool is a helicopter or a chainsaw. In the park service, the way we look at it is “What is the least impacting overall?” You need to look at the bigger picture as opposed to focusing just on the chainsaw or just on the helicopter.

Minimum-requirement example

Let’s consider a real-life management scenario based in the Superstition Wilderness, which is located in south-central Arizona . This scenario will help illustrate the minimum-requirement concept, the idea that managers should use the method and tools that result in the least impact to wilderness resources, character, values, and visitor experience, regardless of convenience. In the late 1980s, an experimental airplane went down inside the wilderness area. Managers located the wreckage and the minimum-requirement decision-making process began. Managers carefully evaluated how best to remove the plane in a manner that minimized impacts to the land and to the experiences of visitors to Superstition Wilderness.

Once managers thoroughly analyzed the plane debris, they determined that the engine was simply too heavy to be packed out on livestock and would have to be hauled out by helicopter. However, cutting the body of the plane with hacksaws and packing the pieces out on horses was possible. Although a removal plan that incorporated only primitive skills and tools would have been the most wilderness-friendly alternative, the weight of the plane engine made it necessary to adopt a combined primitive and motorized strategy. Any motorized use, not specifically allowed as an exception by the Wilderness Act or other legislation, must be approved at the regional-office level of the USDA Forest Service. The combined primitive and mechanical proposal for removal of the aircraft was approved, and the project was enacted.

In order to minimize the impact of this project on wilderness visitors, staff performed the work in the morning, in the middle of the week (as compared to more popular weekend days for visitation), and in late spring when the heat of the Arizona desert keeps many visitors at home. The helicopter was scheduled very early in the morning and the plane engine was hooked up by cable to a long-line and removed without the helicopter having to land.

By implementing the project during this specific time and in this manner, no visitor’s experience was altered, and physical impacts of the project were substantially reduced. Hence, the primary goals of the minimum-tool concept, as called for in Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act, were achieved.


Now that you have the idea, try one or two of the scenarios on your own (1. Road access to a mine or 2. Damage from a natural disaster).

1. Road Access to a Mine, Sierra Estrella Wilderness

Central issue

Should theBureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Phoenix Field Office allow a private contractor to use 2 miles (3.2 km) of a BLM road, which is directly adjacent to wilderness, and 0.5 mile (0.8 km) of a road inside the Sierra Estrella Wilderness in order to access and reopen an old mine located on state land?

Situation: The Sierra Estrella Wilderness is located approximately 30 miles (48 km) southwest of one of the fastest growing metropolises in the country—Phoenix, Arizona.This area is composed primarily of upper Sonoran desert with some mountainous terrain. Although this wilderness is adjacent to such a sprawling community, it does not receive a great deal of visitor use because of poor road access. A number of inactive mines are present throughout the area, but these were closed before the area’s designation as wilderness. The mine proposed for reopening once produced high-grade mica, a mineral used for making insulation. A number of old roads were used to access these mines but all have been left to recover naturally since the area was established as wilderness.

A small mining corporation is proposing to lease and reopen an old mica mine, which is located on state land and is directly adjacent to the Sierra Estrella Wilderness. Because of the area’s remoteness, only two access roads go to the mine. The access road that exists solely on state land is approximately 10 miles (16 km) from the main entrance road, is in very poor condition, and will need a substantial amount of work before it could be used. Improvements to make this road accessible would be costly.

Another road exists on BLM land that is only 2.5 miles (4 km) to the mine from the main entrance road, but the last 0.5 mile (0.8 km) is located inside the Estrella Wilderness. This road is in much better condition than the state road for the first 2 miles (3.2 km) from the main entrance road to the wilderness boundary and no work is needed for use. The last 0.5 mile (0.8 km) of the BLM road enters the wilderness from the west and exits at the southwestern corner of the wilderness, where it reaches the mine on state land. It is fairly flat and open country and rehabilitation of the section of BLM road inside the wilderness could be easily accomplished with very little cost to the contractor.

Management alternatives

Alternative A: Only allow access on the first 2 miles (3.2 km) of the BLM road to the wilderness boundary; the contractor would then have to use primitive transport, such as horses, to haul equipment and workers the last 0.5 mile (0.8 km) through the wilderness to the mine.

Alternative B: Allow access to the mine using the entire length of the BLM road, including the section that runs through the wilderness.

Alternative C: Deny all access.

You are the wilderness manager—use the supporting information to decide which management alternative you would choose to answer the central issue question. Your selection will serve as your final decision to the central issue question of this scenario. First, consider some supporting information:

Here are some questions to consider as you make your decision:

Here is some additional information to consider:

Wilderness Act of 1964

Section 4(b) of the Wilderness Act states, “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character.”

This means that all wilderness areas are to be managed for their wilderness character and that managing any other aspect of the wilderness resource, such as wildlife, must fit within the parameters of maintaining the true spirit of wildness.

Furthermore, Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act states, “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motorized vehicles, motorized equipment or motor boats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structures or installation within any such area.”

 Section 4(c) provides clear direction about human imprints upon wilderness, that is, they should be substantially unnoticeable, and activities exclude mechanical and motorized equipment. Although this section does offer room for exceptions, such as the use of a helicopter in an emergency situation, it directly mandates that wilderness be managed in a way that excludes such human influences.

Wilderness management principles

The four principles of wilderness management or stewardship are:

  • Manage wilderness as a whole.
  • Preserve wildness and natural conditions.
  • Protect wilderness benefits.
  • Provide and use the minimum necessary.

Personal values

As a wilderness manager you undoubtedly will take personal pride in the quality of management you provide to users and resources. Think about how you felt when you read that a proposal had been made to drive vehicles and mining equipment through the Sierra Estrella Wilderness. Did it concern you? Did it make you angry? Did it seem reasonable?

Managers are people, and it is ridiculous to think that personal feeling and values will not come into play and one time or another in management decisions. However, managers must understand that although they may not personally agree with every proposed use for a wilderness area, they must abide by laws and policies when making important management decisions.

Final decision

With respect to the supporting information provided with this scenario, the activity proposed by the mining corporation to use the BLM road to access the mica mine is inconsistent with wilderness philosophy, policy, and law. Although cooperating with governmental and non-governmental partners is part of a wilderness manager’s job, this particular proposed activity was too contrary to what is expected in the Wilderness Act and from wilderness management policies, even if it would have saved the mining company a great deal of money. As a result, alternative C is the appropriate decision, and in reality, the request to use the BLM road to access the Sierra Estrella Wilderness Boundary or to drive through the wilderness, was denied. Hence, if you chose alternative C, your decision matches the real-life management decision.


2. Damage From a Natural Disaster, Shenandoah National Park

Central issue

Should Shenandoah National Park clear trails, which received major damage from ice storms, with motorized equipment within designated wilderness?


Shenandoah National Park is located along the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia . Forty percent of the park, 79,579 acres (32,206 ha), is designated as wilderness. The park has more than 500 miles (805 km) of trails, approximately 200 miles (322 km) of which are within designated wilderness. Located within a day’s drive of many large cities, including Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, the park receives millions of visitors every year.

In February 1998, massive ice storms closed most of Shenandoah National Park for several weeks, causing tremendous destruction to trees, trails, and front and backcountry areas. Because of spring breaks, visitors heavily use trails during this time of year. If the trails are not cleared of storm debris, they will be impassible and un-findable in many areas. Visitors would leave obstructed trails to hike around downed trees, resulting in trampled vegetation, damage to constructed trail edges, and soil compaction. Erosion of impacted areas around trails by typical spring rains would further damage park resources. Considering the wide range of skills and experience of visitors to Shenandoah, trail damage would likely cause an increase in the number of injured and lost hikers, and subsequent searches by National Park Service staffs.

The park lacks sufficient personnel and funding to clear the affected trails, using traditional hand tools before the onslaught of spring visitors. A proposal has been made to clear the storm-damaged trails using chain saws within the designated wilderness.

Management alternatives

Alternative A: No action. Only clear trails in wilderness with traditional hand tools as time and funding allows. Notify visitors of trail conditions in an attempt to decrease safety concerns and damage to the resource.

Alternative B: Minimal action. Use chain saws on trails in wilderness at selected times in order to clear trails with minimal noise disturbance for visitors and wildlife.

Alternative C: Selective action. Inventory all trails and determine action for trails on a case-by-case basis. Select the most heavily used trails for opening with power tools and evaluate lesser-used trails for opening with traditional hand tools.

Alternative D: Full action. Allow unrestricted use of chain saws on all trails in wilderness until trails are fully cleared of storm damage.

You are now the wilderness manager—use the supporting information to decide which management alternative you would choose to resolve the central issue. Your selection will serve as your final decision to the central issue.

Here are some questions to consider as you make your decision:

Here is some additional information to consider:

Wilderness Act of 1964

Section 2(a) of the Wilderness Act states that wilderness areas “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness.”

Section 2(c) defines wilderness “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape … 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. … [Additionally, wilderness is defined as] undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

Section 4(c) explains the prohibition of certain uses: “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.”

Other legislation

Redwood National Park Expansion Act of 1978 emphasizes that the primary purpose of National Park System areas is the protection and preservation of natural resources. It states that management actions “shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established.” The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1986 reiterated this objective by stating “In the Organic Act Congress speaks of but a single purpose, namely conservation.”

National Park Service policy

Management Policies 2001 , section 6.3.5, regarding minimum requirement states, “All management decisions affecting wilderness must be consistent with the minimum requirement concept.". When determining the minimum requirement, the potential disruption of wilderness character and resources will be considered before, and given significantly more weight than, economic efficiency and convenience. If a compromise of wilderness resources or character is unavoidable, only those actions that preserve wilderness character and/or have localized, short-term adverse impacts will be acceptable.”

Shenandoah National Park Backcountry and Wilderness Plan (1998)

The park’s backcountry and wilderness management plan says “chainsaws and other motorized equipment are prohibited in wilderness except as approved by Superintendent.” It also says “clearing should be done at least once each year in early spring to remove winter storm damage.”

Final decision

Shenandoah’s park superintendent approved a limited use of chainsaws in wilderness during a brief window of time that terminated before the expected visitor activity began in earnest. The rationale for the decision was that clearing trails was necessary to avoid degradation of the wilderness resources, resource damage, and lost or injured visitors. Clearing trails could not be completed using traditional hand tools or other non-motorized methods during the time that was available before the visitors would arrive. The “window” of permitted chainsaw activity was short and ended before most visitors arrived the week of spring break. Park staffs conducted a massive effort that had the maximum number of people clearing in order to accomplish the task during the short window of time. More than 100 volunteers from a partner organization, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, participated in clearing storm debris from trails.

If you chose Alternative B, your decision matches the real-life management decision.

Shenandoah’s backcountry and wilderness manager, Steve Bair, explains the park’s decision below.

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

Several years ago, during the months of January and February we had a couple of horrendous ice storms… Normally we would clear our trails with traditional hand tools. We would not allow any wilderness trails to be cleared with chainsaws or other power equipment … we knew we would be getting into the high-use visitor season come late March-April … there would be a great deal of resource impact occurring as people would walk around all these thousands upon thousands of blow-downs, therefore impacting trail edges, damaging new vegetation coming up in the spring, and leading to erosion problems. So we determined that we really needed the resources to go in and remove these tree blow-downs or these ice storm-damaged trees from trails as soon as possible … in fact, at the time, there were a lot of resource impacts occurring on trails because we were getting a lot of wintertime use after the ice storms; therefore we made the decision that we would go in, use chainsaws on wilderness trails, get them open, so visitors could use those in the spring, and avoid all the resource impacts. But at the same time, we used mitigating measures which is restricting the use of chainsaws to certain periods of time, perhaps certain days of the week, and of course we just opened the window of perhaps 2 months for that work to be accomplished.

3. Wilderness fly-in — wilderness access for physically challenged visitors, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

Central issue

Should the Moose Creek district ranger continue to allow a wilderness fly-in of physically challenged guests and attendants exceeding established group-size limits?


The 1.3-million-acre (526,110-ha) Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and Montana is one of the original wilderness areas established by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The wilderness area rests in several national forests: Bitterroot National Forest, Clearwater National Forest, Nez Perce National Forest, and Lolo National Forest. Moose Creek airstrip, in the heart of the wilderness, was in existence at establishment. With its 2,000-feet (610-m) and 4,000-feet (1,219-m) runways and relatively low elevation, Moose Creek airstrip is more capable of handling larger aircraft than many backcountry airstrips.

Since 1978 a 20-person limit on group size has been in effect throughout the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. In order to preserve a wilderness experience for visitors, managers established guidelines stating that any one group should contact no more than five other groups per day during their visit.

The Washington Pilots Association has requested a special use permit to transport 55 physically challenged guests and attendants to the Moose Creek Ranger Station via airplane for a one-day wilderness experience. Approximately 15 aircraft would be used. The group spokesman emphasizes the importance of providing a wilderness experience to participants who otherwise would not have the opportunity to be in wilderness. He also cites the desirability of Moose Creek airfield due to its proximity to their Spokane base, its long runways, and low elevation. Pilots and attendants would outnumber the physically challenged guests by about two to one because of the special needs of the guests. Employees of three Spokane hospitals and nursing homes are cooperating. Spokane TV stations and newspapers show widespread interest, and a TV crew will be along on the trip. Similar fly-ins had been held at Moose Creek during the two previous years, as well as at Chamberlain airfield in the nearby Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. Such fly-ins are becoming annual events by civic minded pilots.

Management alternatives

Alternative A: Do not give permission for the fly-in as requested. Suggest other airstrips outside of the wilderness area to conduct the fly-in.

Alternative B: Give permission for the fly-in if the group will follow group-size limits.

Alternative C: Give permission for the fly-in as requested.

You are the wilderness manager—use the supporting information provided to decide which management alternative you would choose to resolve the central issue. Your selection will serve as your “final decision” to the central issue.

Supporting information

Here are some questions to consider as you make your decision:

To get help, use the following information.

Wilderness Act of 1964
Section 4(b) of the Wilderness Act states, “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character.”

This means that all wilderness areas are to be managed for their wilderness character and that managing any other aspect of the wilderness resource, such as recreational use, must fit within the parameters of maintaining the true spirit of wildness.

Furthermore, Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act states, “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motorized vehicles, motorized equipment or motor boats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structures or installation within any such area.”

Section 4(c) provides clear direction about human imprints upon wilderness, that is, they should be substantially unnoticeable, and activities exclude mechanical and motorized equipment. Although this section does offer room for exceptions, such as the use of a helicopter in an emergency situation, it directly mandates that wilderness be managed in a way that excludes such human influences.

However, Section 4(d) states, “Within wilderness areas designated by this Act the use of aircraft or motorboats, where these uses have already become established, may be permitted to continue subject to such restrictions as the Secretary of Agriculture deems desirable.” The use of airplanes at the Moose Creek airstrip was already established prior to wilderness designation, though the specific request to use the airstrip for the Washington Pilots Association is recent.

Other legislation
In 1990 Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which addresses the issue of accessibility in the National Wilderness Preservation System in Section 507(c):

In General—Congress reaffirms that nothing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an indivdual whose disability requires use of a wheelchair, and consistent with the Widlerness Act, no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.

Agencies are not required to provide any modifications or special treatments in the National Wilderness Preservation System to accommodate accessiblity by persons with disabilities. However, agencies are encouraged to explore solutions for reasonable accomodations when not in conflict with the Wilderness Act. Exceptions and special requests must be carefully analyzed to ensure that they do not conflict with wilderness values, that the special request will not establish a precedent that might negatively impact the wilderness resource, that they provide benefits to persons with disabilities, and that the goal is accomplished with the minimum tool necessary.

Agency and wilderness area management plans
Since 1978 a 20-person limit on group size has been in effect throughout the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. In order to preserve a wilderness experience for visitors, managers established guidelines stating that any one group should contact no more than five other groups per day during their visit.

Final Decision

The district ranger denied the request for special use permit fo 55 people to participate in the Wilderness Within Reach Fly-In. The district ranger did, however, document a detailed rationalization for his decision which he shared with the applicant and other interested parties. The ranger further invited Wilderness Within Reach to Moose Creek Ranger Station in groups of 20 or less, and offered to provide educational and historical programs about the Selway-Bitterroot Wildernss and Moose Creek Ranger Station on as many days as necessary to accommodate the total number of 55 people. As aircraft use is a legitimate legal use at Moose Creek, it would be inappropriate for the district ranger to try to prohibit groups of 20 or less, especially as this would then fall into a category of uses not usually requiring a special use permit.

Earlier in his negotiations with Washington Pilots Association, the district ranger recommended use of the non-wilderness airfield at Dixie, Idaho. This was dismissed by the association’s representative because it was not in wilderness, it was futher from Spokane, and was twice the elevation of the Moose Creek airfield and thus would require smaller planes. The latter two reasons would drive up the costs for the participating volunteer pilots.

Within two weeks of the scheduled fly-in, the association stated that the size of their party would be less than 20. However, just two days before the planned event, heavy smoke from nearby fires created severe visibility problems, prompting the forest supervisor to close the airfield to all flights. The forest supervisor contacted the fly-in coordinator to let him know of the decision to close the airstrip and to solicit the pilots’ understanding and cooperation. The forest supervisor also thanked the coordinator for limiting the group size to less than 20. This closure was in effect on the day of the planned event; therfore, the event did not occur.

Why did the fly-in happen during the previous two years? In 1990 the ranger authorized a one-time exception to the 20-person limit when he was contacted by Washington Pilots Association a few days prior to the planned event to accommodate all the arrangements and costs that had already been incurred. In 1991 the ranger denied the application of a special use permit, but the event occurred anyway, under the guise of three different groups, identified by different colored caps, flying in on the same day. Fourteen aircraft were used, and no citations were issued. Television coverage of the event portrayed the event as consisting of a single group.

The ranger did receive complaints from other users about the two hours of nonstop low elevation overflights during the 1991 event.

Despite the complicated series of events in this real-life wilderness management scenario, if you chose alternative B your decision matches the decision of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area district ranger. Alternative A was followed in part, because the district ranger did deny the permit as requested and suggested other places outside the wilderness for the fly-in. Because of extenuating circumstancs in 1990, Alternative C was the outcome that year.



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?



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