Wilderness Act


The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–577) was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres (37,000 km²) of federal land. The result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964 after over sixty drafts and eight years of work.

Wilderness Act
Great Seal of the United States
Long titleAn Act to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes.
NicknamesWilderness Act of 1964
Enacted bythe 88th United States Congress
Public law88–577
Statutes at Large78 Stat. 890
Titles amended16 U.S.C.: Conservation
U.S.C. sections created16 U.S.C. ch. 23 § 1131 et seq.
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S. 4
  • Passed the Senate on April 9, 1963 (73-12)
  • Passed the House on July 30, 1964 (374-1, in lieu of H.R. 9070)
  • Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act of 1964 in the White House Rose Garden. Also pictured are Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Senator Frank Church, Mardy Murie, Alice Zahniser, and Representative Wayne Aspinall, among others.

The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

"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." - Howard Zahniser

When Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, it created the National Wilderness Preservation System. The initial statutory wilderness areas, designated in the Act, comprised 9.1 million acres (37,000 km²) of national forest wilderness areas in the United States of America previously protected by administrative orders. The current amount of areas designated by the NWPS as wilderness totals 757 areas encompassing 109.5 million acres of federally owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico (5% of the land in the United States).

Legal frameworkEdit

Wilderness Act land is chosen from existing federal land and by determining which areas are considered to have the following criteria:

  • Minimal human imprint
  • Opportunities for unconfined recreation
  • At least five thousand acres
  • Educational, scientific, or historical value

Additionally, areas considered as wilderness should have no commercial enterprises within them or any motorized travel or other form of mechanical transport (e.g., vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles).[1]

When Congress designates each wilderness area, it includes a very specific boundary line in statutory law. Once a wilderness area has been added to the system, its protection and boundary can be altered only by Congress.[citation needed]

The basics of the program set out in the Wilderness Act are straightforward:

  • The lands protected as wilderness are areas of our public lands.
  • Wilderness designation is a protective overlay Congress applies to selected portions of national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands.
  • Within wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act strives to restrain human influences so that ecosystems [the Wilderness Act, however, makes no specific mention of ecosystems] can change over time in their own way, free, as much as possible, from human manipulation. In these areas, as the Wilderness Act puts it, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," untrammeled meaning that the forces of nature operate unrestrained and unaltered.
  • Wilderness areas serve multiple uses but the law limits uses to those consistent with the Wilderness Act mandate that each wilderness area be administered to preserve the "wilderness character of the area." For example, these areas protect watersheds and clean-water supplies vital to downstream municipalities and agriculture, as well as habitats supporting diverse wildlife, including endangered species, but logging and oil and gas drilling are prohibited.
  • Along with many other uses for the American people, wilderness areas are popular for diverse kinds of outdoor recreation but without motorized or mechanical vehicles or equipment except where specifically permitted. Scientific research is also allowed in wilderness areas as long as it is non-invasive.
  • The Wilderness Act has been interpreted by the administrating agencies to ban bicycles from wilderness areas based on the statutory text prohibiting "other mechanical forms of transport." It is noteworthy that mountain bikes did not exist when the Wilderness Act was enacted, hence they were not explicitly identified in the statute. The prohibition on bicycles has led to opposition from mountain bikers to the opening of new wilderness areas.
  • The Wilderness Act allows certain uses (resource extraction, grazing, etc.) that existed before the land became wilderness to be grandfathered in and so they may continue to take place although the area that was designated as wilderness typically would not concede such uses. Specifically, mining, grazing, water uses, or any other uses that do not significantly impact the majority of the area may remain in some degree.

When the Wilderness Act was passed, it ignored lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management because of uncertainty of policy makers surrounding the future of those areas. The uncertainty was clarified in 1976 with the passing of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which stated that land managed by the Bureau of Land Management would remain federally owned and, between March 1978 and November 1980, would be reviewed to possibly be classified as wilderness.[2]


Some argue that the criteria to determine wilderness are vague and open to interpretation. For example, one criterion for wilderness is that it be roadless, and the act does not define the term roadless. Wilderness advocacy groups and some agency bureaucrats have attempted to impose this standard: "the word 'roadless' refers to the absence of roads that have been improved and maintained by mechanical means."[3] For more information, see Revised Statute 2477.


The pioneering research and advocacy work of Margaret and Olaus Murie and Celia Hunter, along with the Alaska Conservation Society, was crucial to the passage of the Wilderness Act, and to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Margaret Murie testified passionately before Congress in favor of the Wilderness Act.[4] Margaret worked with Wilderness Society staffer Howard Zahniser, author of the bill, to promote passage of the act, and she attended the signing ceremony.[5]


Today, the Wilderness System comprises over 109 million acres (441,000 km²) involving federal lands administered by four agencies:

The National Wilderness Preservation System:
Area Administered by each Federal Agency (September 2014)[6]
Agency Wilderness area Agency land
designated wilderness
National Park Service 43,932,843 acres (17,778,991 ha) 56%
U.S. Forest Service 36,165,620 acres (14,635,710 ha) 18%
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 20,702,488 acres (8,378,000 ha) 22%
Bureau of Land Management 8,710,087 acres (3,524,847 ha) 2%
Total 109,511,038 acres (44,317,545 ha) 100%

Future legislationEdit

Congress considers additional proposals every year, some recommended by federal agencies and many proposed by grassroots conservation and sportsmen's organizations.[7]

Congressional bills are pending to designate new wilderness areas in Utah, Colorado, Washington, California, Virginia, Idaho, West Virginia, Montana and New Hampshire. Grassroots coalitions are working with local congressional delegations on legislative proposals for additional wilderness areas, including Vermont, southern Arizona, national grasslands in South Dakota, Rocky Mountain peaks of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended new wilderness designations, which citizen groups may propose to expand.

50th anniversary of Wilderness ActEdit

In 2014, America celebrated "50 Years of Wilderness", and Wilderness50, a growing coalition of federal agencies, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and other wilderness user groups has been created to document this historical commemoration honoring America's "True American Legacy of Wilderness."[8]

A series of projects and events were held to commemorate the 50th year of the Wilderness Act, including community museum, airport and visitor center displays; National website and social media campaign; Smithsonian photography exhibition; Washington D.C. Wilderness Week in September, and the National Wilderness Conference.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "Complete Text of the Wilderness Act".
  2. ^ Durrant, Jeffrey, Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007. Print.
  3. ^ "Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory on BLM Lands," 15 March 2012 [1]
  4. ^ wilderness.org
  5. ^ wilderness.net
  6. ^ Table from The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage through the Wilderness Act (Fulcrum Publishing, 2004). Wilderness area by agency from www.wilderness.net. For consistency, all data used for percentage calculation are from Federal Land Management Agencies: Background on Land and Resource Management (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, RL30867, February 2001)
  7. ^ Turner, James Morton (2012). The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295991757.
  8. ^ "50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act". www.wilderness50th.org. Retrieved 10 April 2018.


  • Dant, Sara. "Making Wilderness Work: Frank Church and the American Wilderness Movement." Pacific Historical Review 77 (May 2008): 237-272.
  • Doug Scott (August 15, 2004). The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage through the Wilderness Act. Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN 1-55591-527-2.
  • "The Wilderness Act of 1964." [2] Archived 2013-08-21 at the Wayback Machine
  • "Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory on BLM Lands", 15 March 2012 [3]
  • Jeffrey 0. Durrant (2007). Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 978-0-8165-2669-7.
  • James Morton Turner (2012). The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295991757.

External linksEdit

  • The Wilderness Society (political advocacy)
  • 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Act Commemoration Events
  • 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Act Hub
  • Listen to President Johnson's remarks at the signing of the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964
  • [ Full text of the Wilderness Act]
  • "The Wilderness Act". Wilderness Connect. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  • Overview of other wilderness-related legislation Archived 2012-03-30 at the Wayback Machine
  • Campaign for America's Wilderness (political advocacy)
  • Californians for Western Wilderness (political advocacy)
  • America's Redrock Wilderness Act Archived 2008-11-25 at the Wayback Machine - Library of Congress