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What is Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 designated federal lands for preservation.


What is Wilderness?

Backpacking in the John Muir Wilderness

© Monica Prelle

History of the 1964 Wilderness Act
Though wilderness is often used as a description for wild and natural environments, it is also a federal designation of public land. The Wilderness Act of 1964 designated lands for “preservation and protection in their natural condition.”

Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. Over eight years there were 65 rewrites and 18 public hearings before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, on September 3, 1964 creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. U.S. Forest Service employees, Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhart, and Bob Marshall are credited for being early influencers and proponents of the wilderness designation.

According to Wilderness.net, about nine million acres of Forest Service areas in 13 states immediately received permanent protection in 1964. Today national wilderness areas span more than 109.5 million acres in 757 areas in 44 of the 50 states and Puerto Rico, is designated wilderness. More than half of that land is in Alaska.
Find a Wilderness Area with this List of U.S. Wilderness Areas

What is a Federally Designated Wilderness Area?
The lands protected under the National Wilderness Preservation are managed by four federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

According to the Wilderness Act, lands that are designated wilderness must be under federal ownership and management, the land must consist of at least five thousand acres, human influence must be “substantially unnoticeable,” there must be opportunities for solitude and recreation, and the area must possess “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Though the United States’ Wilderness Act of 1964 was the first of its kind in the world, other countries soon followed and now wilderness areas are designated and protected all over the world.

Famous Wilderness Quotations
American writers like Edward Abbey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau are known for their poetic descriptions of wilderness and are credited for popularizing nature preservation and continue to inspire Americans to take to the wild.

Edward Abbey: “I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving.” A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto) (1990)

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food.” Nature (1836)

John Muir: “The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly.” My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)

Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Walking (1862)

Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness Preservation

The Wilderness Act will celebrate its 50th birthday on September 3, 2014. More than 300 events will take place across the country to commemorate the historic act of nature preservation and conservation.

For more information on events or how you can participate in wilderness celebrations, visit Wilderness50th.org, or follow the 50th Anniversary Of The Wilderness Act on Facebook and Twitter.

In honor of the 50th birthday of the Wilderness Act, About Camping wants to hear which are your favorite wilderness areas! Nominate the Best U.S. Wilderness Area for camping for a 2013 Readers' Choice Award.

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