September is National Wilderness Month

September 3rd, 2014 was the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. In recognition of this anniversary, President Obama has declared September 2014 as “National Wilderness Month”. In the official Presidential Proclamation, President Obama “invite[s] all Americans to visit and enjoy our wilderness areas, to learn about their vast history, and to aid in the protection of our precious national treasures.”  As part of my personal celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the following post will be all about designated wilderness in the US.

What is the Wilderness Act?

The Wilderness Act was signed by Lyndon Johnson on September 3rd 1964. The act was written by Howard Zahniser, an executive director of The Wilderness Society, who sadly died a few months before the act was signed into law.  The Wilderness Act (which can be read in it’s entirely here) established the National Wilderness Preservation System.  The act initially protected 54 areas totaling 9.1 millions acres as designated wilderness.

Lyndon Johnson signing of the Wilderness Act. He is shown giving the pen to Alice Zahniser (Howard Zahniser’s wife) and Mardy Murie looks on. Photo courtesy of

What is wilderness?

From a legal perspective, wilderness is a designation that can only be applied to already existing federal land.  Meaning, that places can only become wilderness if they are already managed by the National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wilderness designation is essentially a “second-level” of protection for already protected federal land and the highest level of land protection currently in existence in the US legislative system.

The legal definition of wilderness is, in my opinion, beautifully written:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.”

A wilderness area should meet the following four criteria which come straight from the Wilderness Act:

“(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

(3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition

(4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Once designated as wilderness, these areas are protected and managed so that these four criteria continue to be met. For example, in order to protect primitive forms of recreation in wilderness areas, motorized or mechanized recreational activities -such as ATVing and mountain biking – are prohibited in designated wilderness.  Wilderness areas are also generally road-less and the landing of aircraft is generally not allowed.

How much wilderness do we have in the US?

Since 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System has expanded to include 758 wilderness areas totaling 109.5 million acres.  In 1980, the amount of land in the National Wilderness Preservation System tripled thanks to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).  Although this may seem like a huge amount of land, that is actually only about 5% of the United States. Which brings us to our next question…

Where are our wilderness areas? maintains a great, interactive map of the National Wilderness Preservation System.  But the majority (52%) of wilderness areas are found in Alaska. Alaska also contains the single largest wilderness area; the Wrangle-St. Elias Wilderness area (9 million acres). In terms of acreage, California comes in at a far second for the most wilderness at almost 15 millions acres of wilderness (4% of the state). My current home state of Utah contains about 1 million acres of wilderness which makes up only 1% of the state.   To find out how many acres of wilderness are found other states here is a great table put together by

Who manages wilderness?

Wilderness is managed by all of the “big four” land management agencies: the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The National Park Service manage the most wilderness acres and about half of all of the National Park Service lands are wilderness (largely thanks to ANILCA). The BLM manages the least amount of wilderness acres and designated wilderness makes up only 2% of all BLM lands.

A Final Word:

Every year numerous bills are introduced into Congress to establish new wilderness areas. Here is a list of some of the bills put forth to the 113 Congress. Until March of this year, Congress had not established any new wilderness areas in almost 5 years.

The video below was put together by National Geographic and talks about the Wilderness Act and the Wilderness Preservation System.

If you’d like to learn more about wilderness check out either (or all!) of these sites:

The Wilderness Society

Wilderness 50


One thought on “September is National Wilderness Month

  1. Pingback: Happy 100th Anniversary Rocky Mountain National Park! | The Average Visitor

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