"Lyndon Johnson Signs Wilderness Act of 1964" was the headline on September 3, 1964. Unlike many other Great Society legislative bills, this one went through over sixty drafts before it was completed. The original version is credited to Howard Zahniser, a member of the Wilderness Society.
What Is the Wilderness Act of 1964?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 created a legal definition of wilderness still used by the federal government today. The Act applied to roughly 9.1 million acres of federal land. It spelled out a process for formally designating additional lands as wilderness areas and thus off-limits to logging, mining, most types of agriculture and many recreational activities. Commercial uses like grazing, mining, water usage and logging that existed in the wilderness area may continue as “grandfathered” as long as they do not significantly impact the area. However, the rules and regulations that permit such activity tend to become more restrictive over time, driving out human usage.
While fishing, hunting and hiking may be allowed in the wilderness areas, the lack of permanent roads mean most visitors to federal lands never reach wilderness areas.
Lands declared wilderness under the Wilderness Act become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System or NWPS. After an area is added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, only an act of Congress can remove it from that designation. Land can be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System by an act of Congress, as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act did. Two million acres were added in 2009 as part of the Omnibus Public Management Act.
Wilderness Areas Created by the Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act of 1964 created 54 wilderness areas at its onset. These areas include but are not limited to the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California, Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, Diamond Peak in Oregon, Mazatal in Arizona, Mount Adams in Washington, Mount Hood and Washington in Oregon, San Pedro Parks in New Mexico, Teton in Wyoming, White Mountain in New Mexico and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.
National Wilderness and Federal Lands
All designated wilderness is federal land. Only a portion, roughly a sixth of all federal land, is designated wilderness.
Around 109 million acres are part of the NWPS today, with land in 44 states and Puerto Rico. This is around 5% of all land in the U.S. This is not all of the federally held land in the United States. The U.S. government has direct ownership of around 650 million acres of land, including military bases, NWPS lands, Native American reservations, national parks and reserves. This network of federally owned lands is managed by many different agencies, from the Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service. Military basis are managed by the Department of Defense while reservations are managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Another difference between designated wilderness and conventional federal land is the restrictions on its use. Designated wilderness is not allowed to have permanent roads, and motorized vehicles are prohibited except for recreational purposes, medical evacuations, maintenance and restoration of wilderness areas, fight fires, protect private property, control insect infestation and so forth. Commercial services except for recreational purposes are not allowed under the Wilderness Act in wilderness areas. Scientific research is allowed in wilderness areas if it is deemed non-invasive.
Permanent structures and installations are not allowed, except in wilderness areas in Alaska.
National park backcountry is not legally classified as “wilderness” but may be put off-limits by federal agency regulations. National park backcountry can be recommended for addition to the wilderness system but cannot be legally converted to such without Congressional approval.
Did You Know?
Of lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System, around 56% is managed by the National Park Service, 18% by the U.S. Forest Service, 22% by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 2% by the Bureau of Land Management.
The largest wilderness area is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It is often abbreviated as ANWR.
A re-interpretation of the “no motorized vehicles” rule for wilderness to include bicycles has led many bikers to oppose the designation of new wilderness areas.