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[photo] rock outcrop in Superstition Wilderness, Arizona    

Wilderness is the land
that was
wild land beyond the frontier…
land that shaped the growth of the Nation
and the character of its people.

Wilderness is the land
that is
rare, wild places where one can retreat from civilization,
reconnect with the Earth,
and find healing, meaning and significance.

An American Legacy

Wilderness is an indispensable part of the American story. Native Americans depended on the bounty of wilderness 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 wilderness that became the forge upon which our uniquely American national character was created. But after just 200 years, the essential wildness of America virtually disappeared. As Americans realized that the long-term health and welfare of the nation were at risk, a vision for conservation emerged.


[photo] a packstock crossing a river    

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 in America. The Wilderness Act 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.

A uniquely American idea, wilderness is part of our heritage and is passed on as a legacy to our children. Firmly attached to the American past, the legacy that is wilderness will remain indispensable to the American future.

The National Wilderness Preservation System

[photo] a hiker with backpack on wilderness trail in Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Colorado

The National Wilderness Preservation System, established by Congress in 1964, includes over 700 areas in 44 states totaling more than 107 million acres. More than half of these areas are within a day"s drive of America's largest cities including Seattle, Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. Wilderness contributes significantly to our nation's health and well-being. The public benefits these areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and far exceed the mere acreage protected.

  • Today, America's cities depend on water that flows from wilderness and we breathe air that is cleansed by vegetation growing there.
  • Wilderness protects natural processes, like fire, needed to sustain wildlife habitat and ensure rich biodiversity.
  • More than 12 million people visit wilderness each year to hike, hunt, fish, ride horses, raft, ski, and take pictures.
  • Wilderness areas help sustain local and regional economies and support many high quality jobs.
  • Wilderness is part of America's heritage and passed on as a legacy to our children by many who will never visit wilderness, yet value the existence of its natural and undeveloped character

Find out more about the current extent of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Threats to Wilderness

[photo] Presidential Range--Dry River Wilderness, New Hampshire

Wilderness designation does not ensure sanctuary from political, social, economic and environmental events that threaten the ecological integrity of these areas. Even the ecosystems in these most protected of public lands are threatened.

  • Huge expanses of wilderness have experienced profound and devastating changes because of fire suppression.
  • Non-native, invasive species of plants and animals are invading, displacing and destroying native species in wilderness all across the country.
  • Heavy and highly concentrated recreational use of sensitive areas has disrupted the natural systems on which sensitive plants and animals rely.
  • Demographic shifts and increasing metropolitan population densities have contributed to a growing disconnect between people and wilderness. Many people have a poor understanding of what a wilderness area is, how it shapes and influences our unique national character, and the ecosystem services that these areas provide the public whether or not we ever visit a wilderness

To Find Out More

In addition to the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife Service, and National Park Service are charged with stewardship of these lands while providing for appropriate human use and enjoyment. To find out more about these special places, we encourage you to visit Wilderness.net, a Web site jointly managed by the University of Montana and the four federal agencies that manage wilderness.


US Forest Service
Last modified January 31, 2017

[graphic] USDA logo, which links to the department's national site. [graphic] Forest Service logo, which links to the agency's national site. [graphic] A link to the US Forest Service home page.