What is Wilderness?

What is Wilderness?

Cartoon sketches depicting wilderness activities.

Wilderness is designated by Congress to protect places with unique primeval character from an ever-expanding human civilization. It is managed to preserve its natural conditions and “wildness” and provide opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation. Wilderness offers sanctuary for wildlife, protects watersheds, and is a living link to the past. It preserves a piece of a lost landscape and is of great ecological, historical, scientific, recreational, and spiritual value.

Wilderness means different things to different people and can be difficult to define. Its benefits and values are as diverse as those who appreciate it. One thing is certain: wilderness is a rare and precious resource valued by many but understood by few. Take the time to learn all you can about wilderness to get more out of your wilderness experiences.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as follows:

  • “…lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…”

  • “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man…”

  • “…an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation…”

  • “…generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”

  • “… shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historic use.”

Before your next visit to any wilderness, be wilderness wise and “know before you go.” Remember, wilderness is wild and you are responsible for your personal safety. Take this responsibility seriously!

The High Uintas Wilderness is a deceptively fragile place and is being literally “loved to death” by a growing number of visitors. With increasing use and impacts to natural resources, many visitors are also having difficulty finding the wilderness experiences they seek. Please Leave No Trace of your visit, respect restrictions, and help keep the wilderness wild for future generations.

Wilderness: An American Legacy

Wilderness is an indispensable part of American history. Native Americans depended on the bounty of wildlands for survival and held Earth and its wild places as sacred. The great western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were inspired by the untamed beauty of wild places that became the forge upon which our distinctive American national character was created. After just 200 years from the time of Lewis and Clark, the essential wildness of America had virtually disappeared. As Americans realized that the long-term health, welfare, and character of the nation were at risk, a vision for conservation emerged.

In 1964 our nation's leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places remaining in America. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

Wilderness contributes to the ecologic, economic, and social health and well being of our citizens, our country, and our world. The benefits wilderness areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and are highly valued. Recognizing these diverse values opens a world of understanding about our natural world. In addition to the unique recreational opportunities available in wilderness, the Wilderness Act specified that it "may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. These areas founded the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 677 areas (106,498,016 acres) in 44 states. The High Uintas Wilderness was added to the NWPS in 1984 with the passage of the Utah Wilderness Act. Despite the growth of the NWPS, wilderness currently makes up less than 5% of the United States. Growing public demand, shrinking wildlands, and rising threats to wilderness resources from within and without accentuate the value and tenuous nature of wilderness in the 21st century.

The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas through law. Subsequently, countries around the world have followed suit. Wilderness is part of our history and heritage and is passed as a legacy to future generations. Indispensable to the American past, the wilderness legacy will remain indispensable to the American future.

For more information on wilderness values, education and training, or specific wilderness areas, visit Wilderness.net. This website is the information clearinghouse for the entire National Wilderness Preservation System.

For more information, for free educational materials, or to schedule a presentation for your group, contact the Forest Service.

The Forest Service manages the largest number of wilderness areas, but the National Park Service manages the most acres of wilderness. All four Federal land management agencies manage wilderness:

Other Uses

Both the Wilderness Act and the Utah Wilderness Act allow some uses to continue in the High Uintas Wilderness that may not be expected by some visitors. Livestock grazing in the wilderness pre-dates its designation and was grandfathered into the Wilderness Act. Several dams were constructed early in the twentieth century to enlarge natural lakes and store water for downstream communities. Many of these reservoirs are still operational, but most will soon be taken out of service and “stabilized” or returned to naturally functioning lakes under the Central Utah Project Completion Act. And, the Natural Resources Conservation Service maintains two SNOTEL sensors in the wilderness to collect important water and climate data. These uses of the wilderness are managed under permit by the Forest Service.