Tyson Gillard | 01.17.2014

Wilderness. For many outdoorists, there is no public land designation so precious, so true, so pure as “capital W wilderness.” The name alone conjures images of primeval forests, horizon-touching mountains, and wild rivers cascading through deep canyons. And for the most part, those images are accurate. But they’re not complete.

While it may be one of the most sacred land designations to backcountry enthusiasts who prefer getting away on foot or hoof, wilderness is somewhat misunderstood by most Americans. Either championed as the only way to truly protect a special landscape or lambasted as a way for hippie enviromentalists to lock up land and lock out people, wilderness is a polarizing topic in public lands policy. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964, it had passed through Congress in a near unanimous vote.  

At the time America had experienced 150 years of rapid growth, industrialization and urbanization that had radically altered the physical landscape. The frontier had long disappeared, but pockets of wild America persisted into the mid 20th century. National parks and national forests ensured that many of these lands would remain owned by all Americans, but simply calling something a national park doesn’t protect it from roads, visitor centers, bathrooms and hookup-ready campgrounds. Truly wild places in the National Forest System (and other federally managed lands that weren’t national parks) were not only susceptible to campground or roads, but to clearcuts, mining, grazing and other extractive industries.

While the Wilderness Act wasn’t signed until 1964, the first official wilderness area in the U.S. was actually designated in the 1920s by the U.S. Forest Service at the suggestion of a young ranger named Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s tenure as a Forest Ranger in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico provided him with ample time to ruminate about America’s relationship with its incredible public lands. Influenced by John Muir and other early conservationists, Leopold boldly proposed to his supervisors that the headwaters of the Gila River (all contained on the Gila National Forest) be preserved through administrative actions that prohibited road building, mining, or other such development. His supervisors bit, and in 1924 the Gila Wilderness became the first official wilderness in the National Forest System. Once Congress finally passed the Wilderness Act 40 years later, the Gila, the Aldo Leopold, and the Blue Range Wilderness areas were the first to officially become Congressionally designated wilderness areas.

Despite Leopold’s early success and the willingness of the Forest Service to experiment with a new approach to land management that effectively left the land alone, wilderness advocates didn’t have an easy path leading them to the President’s desk for a signing ceremony.

A relatively young conservation organization formed by Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Harvey Broome, Olaus Murie and others in 1936 to advance the notion of wilderness preservation in the U.S. took on the monumental task of drafting the legislation and lobbying for its passage. This group, appropriately named The Wilderness Society, started building a grassroots effort to support the concept of wilderness through writings, presentations, newspaper stories and other means.

In 1945, Olaus Murie, a lion of the scientific and conservation communities, became the organization’s Executive Director based in Moose, Wyoming. Across the country in Washington, D.C., Howard Zanhiser, a federal employee with the Bureau of Biological Survey (now basically Fish and Wildlife Services) left his job and became the group’s executive secretary. Together the two expanded the nascent wilderness campaign, and in 1956 Zanhiser wrote the first draft of the act. Nine years, 65 rewrites, and 18 public hearings later the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, marking the first time any nation had purposefully protected wild lands from development in perpetuity.

Zanhiser was a skilled writer, and he infused the Wilderness Act with themes of freedom, simplicity and nostalgia. America had changed so rapidly and in such a relatively short amount of time that many of the very things that made America America were threatened. By preserving the most wild spaces we had left, we would not only prove that we were the richest and most forward-thinking country on Earth, but we would also preserve a key piece of our fundamental national psyche: the frontiersman, the pioneer, the rugged individual. In wilderness, Zanhiser argued, we could always stay connected to our history and maintain it (along with incredible open, undeveloped tracts of public land, wildlife, clear running streams, and a host of other amazing things) into the future. Sadly, Howard Zanhiser died just five months before his eloquent and prescient Wilderness Act was signed.

Perhaps it’s easiest to simply let Zanhiser’s words from the Wilderness Act describe and define what wilderness meant in America in 1964:


(c) 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of 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; (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; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Zanhiser’s specific use of “untrammeled” illustrates a core belief of the early wilderness advocates. A trammel is a fishing net or a device that prevents horses from running off. For the purposes of the Wilderness Act, Zanhiser defined it as: “not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hamper the free play of natural forces." Wilderness areas were to exist outside of the control of man. They wouldn’t suffer the same meddling and management and control that every other part of the country, national park, national forest, private land or public land was subject to. Wilderness areas would be left alone.

With the passage of the Wilderness Act itself, Congress designated the first round of official wilderness areas – roughly 9 million acres carved out of National Forests in the West. One of the bill’s most important attributes is that only Congress can designate Wilderness. That’s where the “capital ‘W’ Wilderness” comes from. In reality, wilderness is a concept that means different things to different people, and it’s been applied to a variety of landscapes over time. A Wilderness Area on the other hand (“capital W Wilderness”) is an official, Congressionally designated unit of the Wilderness Preservation System that resulted from the passage of the Wilderness Act.

The original law laid out 9.1 million acres of wilderness spread over 54 areas in 13 states. At the time the Act only allowed wilderness areas above 5,000 acres. Subsequent amendments have reduced that area, and “pocket Wilderness” can now be found in dozens of national forests and parks. Grazing (sheep and cattle) is allowed in Wilderness Areas, a concession to ranching interests that helped build support for the act, but it’s one of the few activities that are allowed. You cannot use mechanical transportation in Wilderness, so no bikes, no hang gliders, no snow kites and definitely no motorized vehicles are allowed. Horses and hikers are welcome.

Today the National Wilderness Preservation System that Zanhiser helped create now includes 765 areas, stretching an incredible 109,127,689 acres through 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system. The Forest Service manages the most Wildernesses, but the National Park Service actually manages more wilderness acreage (largely due to its role managing Alaskan Wilderness).

Along with wilderness itself, the Forest Service and other agencies manage “wilderness study areas” and “roadless areas” that have wilderness qualities but aren’t designated by Congress. Local managers determine how those areas are managed, and some recent decisions to curtail mountain bike use in Wilderness Study Areas along with a parallel effort by the mountain biking community to open many wilderness acres to biking have generated significant controversy in the outdoor recreation arena.

Wilderness advocates last celebrated a new designation in 2015, when Congress designated three areas in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains as wilderness, proof positive that despite becoming more controversial, wilderness preservation still happens when the right mix of political will coalesces around a special place.

Access Fees

Access to wilderness areas depends on the managing agency. If a wilderness area lies in a national park, you’ll have to pay the park entrance fee. If the wilderness area is on national forest lands, you likely won’t be charged an entrance fee (although you may have to pay to park your car at the trailhead). The best way to find out is to call the managing office and ask. Of course with an $80 America the Beautiful Pass you’ll be able to access just about any public land site. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities. This pass is good for national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, as well as Bureau of Land Management sites.

Visit Wisely

We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.

Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands:


Helpful clarifications here on what is/is not permitted in wilderness areas.
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