In 1964, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This landmark legislation created permanent protection for some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. Today, the Wilderness Act continues to be the guiding piece of legislation for all wilderness areas. The need for these protections takes many forms.
Oxygen producing plants and trees in wilderness areas improve the quality of our air by reducing the "greenhouse effect" where heat is trapped by the Earth's atmosphere caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from human activities. Some wilderness areas were designated in order to preserve healthy watersheds for current and future generations.
Not only do wilderness areas protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, they also protect the wildlife we cherish. Millions of birds use wilderness areas as nesting and wintering grounds, and resting places when migrating. Many animals, such as the wolf, bear, moose, and elk make their homes in the wilderness. Wilderness areas help maintain the genetic material needed to provide a continuing diversity of plant and animal life. Without the space and isolation that wilderness areas offer, these and other wildlife species could not survive.
Part of the beauty of the wilderness is also in what we don't see or hear. Natural darkness allows us to see stars that we wouldn't normally see even in the darkest areas of our cities. In the natural quiet of the wilderness, we can enjoy solitude and are inspired and humbled by the feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves.
Recreational use of wilderness areas has increased 10 times in the past 40 years. More than 12 million people now visit wilderness areas each year either on their own, or with a guide, to climb mountains, ride horses, hunt game, fish trout streams, ski snowcapped peaks, raft rivers, canoe lakes, take pictures and stargaze. Most types of recreational uses are allowed in wilderness areas, except those needing mechanical transport or motorized equipment, such as motorboats, cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, bicycles and snowmobiles. Some exceptions are made for wheelchairs.
Whatever your reasons for visiting the wilderness, remember to follow the Principles of Leave No Trace and leave nothing but footprints, create nothing but memories and take nothing but photographs.