What is Wilderness?

Designated wilderness areas were created by Congress with passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. The Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System which gave federal land management agencies responsibility for administering wilderness to benefit the nation as a whole. This landmark conservation legislation established for the American people an enduring resource of wilderness.


The Act defined wilderness as areas:

  • Affected primarily by the forces of nature, where man is a visitor who does not remain;
  • Possessing outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;
  • Federally owned, undeveloped, and generally over 5,000 acres of size;
  • Protected and managed to allow natural ecological processes to operate freely;
  • Containing ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value;
  • Formally designated by Congress as Wilderness

The Wilderness Act itself makes allowances for certain activities that were taking place before the Act was passed. While you are recreating in wilderness you may encounter some of these activities. They are: grazing by cattle and sheep through a permitted allotment, old airstrips that are still in use, mining, and dams that were created for agricultural irrigation. These activities are permitted in wilderness as historical practices as described in the Wilderness Act.

For more information on the Wilderness Act, management tools, eductional assistance and other wilderness areas in the country please visit wilderness.net.

This website was formed in 1996 through a collaborative partnership between the College of Forestry and Conservation's Wilderness Institute at The University of Montana, the  Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.