Wilderness. Just hearing this word brings to mind beautiful, remote landscapes that make your feet itchy to get out on the trail. But wilderness areas are so much more than mountainous, remote regions far away. Odds are, there’s probably a wilderness area nearby that you’ve never heard of. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If you’re a wilderness lover like we are, you already know the excitement of shouldering your pack and heading into a new wilderness area for the first time. But there are a lot of misconceptions about the wilderness, too. We’ve cleared up a lot of common questions below – like what actually makes wilderness wilderness, how they got started, and where the newest wilderness areas can be found. Keep reading to become the wilderness expert at your next campfire. And remember: learning about the wild is just as important as exploring it!
What exactly is wilderness?
There’s a lot of confusion about what actually counts as wilderness. Does that park in my backyard that nobody visits count? What about the abandoned field outside of town? Wilderness means land that has been left as it was — without being impacted or developed by humans. It’s land that is managed by our federal government in a specific way to preserve the land’s integrity undeveloped. In fact, designated wilderness is the highest form of protection available for our public lands.
Wilderness doesn’t just mean remote, mountainous regions far from civilization. Our wilderness system preserves ecosystems from hardwood forests in the Northeast, swamps in the Southeast, tundra regions in Alaska, deserts in the Southwest, and mountains in the Rockies. More than half of ‘em are within a day’s drive of America’s largest cities!
Death Valley is the largest National Park in the Lower 48 — and 91 percent of it is designated wilderness.
Where can I find wilderness areas?
Wilderness can be found in 44 U.S. states and are a huge source for our country’s ecologic, economic, and social health. That’s because scenic, wild landscapes not only provide opportunities for finding solitude and recreation; they also preserve important ecosystems and areas with scientific or historical value. Even if you’ve never visited wilderness before, you have the choice to visit it in the future.
And with over 765 wilderness areas peppered throughout the U.S., there’s bound for one to be near you!
Overall, wilderness accounts for 4.84 percent of the entire U.S.’ land — which is slightly larger than California. But with 52 percent of them in Alaska, that leaves 2.76 percent of the contiguous U.S. protected as wilderness. That’s about the size of South Dakota.
How does land become wilderness?
An area becomes wilderness by an act of Congress, which can often take years or decades. Usually, the area is recommended by a federal land management agency, an organized group, or a citizen like you. Then, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate must agree on the same recommendation before the President signs it into law. While that’s quite a process, new wilderness areas are still being added today.
In order to designate land as wilderness, Congress takes into account a lot of different details about the area. For example, they will ask if the area is larger than 5,000 acres, if it is more or less in its natural state, if it provides recreation opportunities (like hiking and camping), if it provides an opportunity for solitude, and if it has ecological, geological, educational, historical, scenic, or scientific significance. That can be a lot to discuss - but in the end, it creates a new wilderness area that we all benefit from!
Once a wilderness area is created, it can be managed by any of our four public land management agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service manages the most units, but the National Park Service manages the most acreage. Confused about how these agencies differ from one another? We’ve got a blog post all about it, so grab a cup of coffee and settle in.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is the most-visited wilderness area in the nation.
Even though wilderness system exists at the national level, a few states have created their own wilderness preservation program modeled on it. Maryland, California, and the Mission Mountains in northwestern Montana all have their own wilderness preservation system.
Proud of our wilderness areas? You should be! The U.S. was the first country in the world to set aside land as a wilderness area by law. This is all thanks to Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act. We owe him a lot. Back in 1964, our lawmakers talked about the benefits of wild places for our nation’s character and health, which set aside land for preservation and protection in their natural condition. Over 50 years later, this landmark policy has lived on pretty much unchanged, and new wilderness areas are still being added today. Thank you, Mr. Zahniser!
What are the threats to wilderness?
Pretty much all of the threats to wilderness arguably are linked back to humans in some way - and that’s a good thing, because that means we can reduce these impacts as much as possible. These issues range from overuse, the spread of invasive species, and our policy of fire suppression. Sensitive areas with rare plants and animals can be hurt by high visitation — so be sure to always follow Leave No Trace principles to reduce your impact when you visit the wilderness.
Some wilderness areas have invasive species outcompeting and destroying the native species that live in the ecosystem. Others have experienced changes from fire suppression - especially from fire management policy adjacent to the wilderness. Inside wilderness areas, fires caused by lightning are allowed to play out naturally, although they can be reduced to an acceptable level if it is deemed catastrophic or the fire may escape the wilderness area. Prescribed burns are occasionally used as well to keep the ecosystem functioning well.
The good news is that there are many, many local organizations that work on combatting these detrimental effects. Look up a local group near you to see if you can get involved in volunteering and helping to preserve our wilderness. Additionally, you can build awareness, become informed, and spread the news about protecting our wilderness with others. Wilderness.net is an incredible resource to learn more.
Alaska has more than half of our country's wilderness, and it definitely sets a high bar. The good news is that you don't have to travel all the way to Alaska to find wilderness - it's spread across the U.S.
Are new wilderness areas being added?
Of course! In fact, there were three added just a few years ago. The Hemingway-Boulders, White Clouds, and Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness were all added in 2015. All three are in Idaho and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.