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BLM>National Conservation Lands>Wilderness FAQs
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Frequently Asked Questions


What is “Wilderness”?
Wilderness is a legal designation designed to provide long-term protection and conservation of Federal public lands. Wilderness is defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

What was the basis of the Wilderness idea?
The wilderness idea — protection of the Nation’s most pristine undeveloped lands — was born in the United States. Early supporters of a wilderness system saw a fundamental need to sustain the unique American character shaped by our national encounter with the wild frontier. In 1925, conservationist Aldo Leopold first promoted a “definite national policy advocating a system of wilderness involving the National Parks and National Forests.” In a memo to Secretary Ickes in 1934, Bob Marshall, another 20th-century Wilderness advocate, suggested the need for protecting wilderness areas by law. After World War II, rapid development threatened the integrity of the remaining undeveloped tracts of public land. Based on early experiences in wilderness protection, conservationists looked for stronger ways to permanently protect wilderness and drafted the first wilderness bill in 1945.


What is the Wilderness Act of 1964?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 is the general legal authority for Congress to designate and for agencies to manage wilderness.

What did The Wilderness Act do?
The Wilderness Act did a variety of things including:

  1. Established a national policy to preserve wilderness.
  2. Established a definition of wilderness.
  3. Established a National Wilderness Preservation System.
  4. Designated the first 9.1 million acres of legally protected wilderness.
  5. Established a single, consistent wilderness management direction.
  6. Mandated a wilderness review process.
  7. Asserted the exclusive power of the Congress to designate wilderness areas.

Why are wilderness areas designated?
The Wilderness Act states that wilderness areas are established “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” Today, wilderness is designated for a variety of benefits, including clean water and air, habitat for rare plants and animals as well as primitive recreation.

How is wilderness designated?
The Wilderness Act asserted the exclusive power of the Congress to designate Wilderness. Congress can also un-designate a Wilderness Area or change the boundaries of a Wilderness Area.

How much wilderness has been designated by Congress?
Since Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, over 130 individual wilderness bills have designated more than 680 Wilderness Areas. These areas total over 106 million acres in 44 States. Of this acreage, more than 57 million acres are in Alaska and over 49 million in the coterminous United States and Hawaii. This represents about 2.5 percent of the land in the lower 48 states. To place this acreage in context, the Department of Agriculture estimates that there are approximately 110 million acres of intensively developed land in the coterminous United States (nearly 6 percent).

Which agencies are responsible for wilderness management?
Wilderness is managed by four Federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service.


For how much Wilderness is the Bureau of Land Management responsible?
The BLM manages 221 Wilderness Areas with 8.7 million acres. These areas are located in all the Western States except Wyoming, Hawaii, and Alaska.

What uses occur in BLM-managed wilderness?
The uses of wilderness include protection of air and watersheds; maintenance of soil and water quality, ecological stability, plant and animal gene pools, protection of archaeological and historical sites, habitat for wildlife; and livestock grazing. Wilderness provides opportunities for outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. Wilderness also provides for the exercise of  valid existing rights such as water rights, mining claims, mineral leases, and rights-of-way.

Does BLM manage wilderness differently from other agencies?
No. Wilderness management is essentially the same from agency to agency, though each agency has its own specific laws and policies for resource management. All agencies respond to the same congressional direction from the Wilderness Act. Differences include the National Park Service prohibiting grazing in its Wilderness Areas, but this is because national parks normally do not allow these activities.

Are motor vehicles allowed in wilderness?
No. The Wilderness Act generally prohibits the use of motor vehicles in wilderness. The law contains special provisions for motor vehicle use when required in emergencies or as necessary for the administration of the area. Motor vehicles may also be permitted for special uses such as access to a private inholding, to support grazing, or to exercise valid existing rights.

What are some of the other uses that occur in wilderness?
Air quality designations - The majority of BLM Wilderness Areas allow some degradation of air quality associated with moderate industrial and population growth. The Clean Air Act allows states to require that Wilderness Areas meet a more stringent air-quality standard using normal State processes.

Cultural and paleontological resources – Inventories, studies, and research that involve surface examination or limited subsurface sampling may be allowed. Salvage of archaeological and paleontological sites; stabilization, reconstruction, and restoration of historic structures; and excavations may also be permitted.

Fire management - In many cases, fire is a natural part of the wilderness character of an area. In these situations, the BLM is working to restore fire to its natural role. Natural and prescribed fires may be allowed to burn under certain conditions. In all cases, the equipment and tactics used to manage fires is designed to minimize the impact to wilderness values. When fire threatens human life or property, motorized equipment may be used to eliminate or minimize the threat.

Landowners access - Landowners have the right to access their property. When private land is completely surrounded by wilderness, the BLM may approve the kind and degree of access that the landowner enjoyed before the area was designated wilderness and that will cause the least impact on wilderness character.

Lands acquisition within a wilderness - BLM may acquire privately owned lands within a wilderness through an exchange or purchase if the owner is willing to sell. These types of acquisitions are usually supported with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund or public land trusts.

Livestock grazing - Domestic livestock graze in almost all Wilderness Areas that the BLM manages. Livestock grazing is permitted where it occurred prior to an area’s designation as wilderness. Copies of the specific congressional direction for livestock grazing in wilderness can be found in any BLM office.

Livestock developments - There are a number of livestock-related range developments such as fences, corrals, water lines, and stock tanks in wilderness. Maintenance of these developments is usually completed with non-motorized means. Where practical alternatives do not exist, maintenance may be completed with the occasional use of motorized equipment. The construction of new range developments may be approved if the development is consistent with an area’s Wilderness Management Plan and the new project is primarily for the purpose of resource protection and the more effective management of these resources. Projects designed to support increased numbers of livestock may not be built.

Use of vehicles to support livestock grazing - Congressional grazing guidelines direct that the use of motorized equipment be based on a rule of practical necessity and reasonableness. Where practical alternatives do not exist, maintenance or other activities may be accomplished through the occasional use of motorized equipment. Motorized equipment is not allowed for activities that can reasonably and practically be accomplished on horseback or foot. Use of motorized equipment is normally only permitted in those portions of a Wilderness Area where such use had occurred prior to the area’s designation as Wilderness and where motorized equipment would not have a significant adverse effect on the natural environment.

Mining and mineral leasing - Minerals in wilderness are withdrawn from all forms of appropriation under the mining laws and from disposition under mineral leasing laws. Prior existing claims or leases with valid existing rights may be developed, though mineral development within wilderness is rare.

Mineral exploration - People may gather information about minerals or other resources within wilderness if such activity is compatible with the preservation of the wilderness.

New roads - The Wilderness Act prohibits construction of new roads.

Recreation - Wilderness Areas support a wide variety of recreation uses that are consistent with protection of wilderness characteristics. Recreational uses in wilderness include activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, camping, nature study, photography, and climbing. Bicycles and other forms of mechanical transport are not allowed in Wilderness Areas, since they are prohibited by the Wilderness Act.

Hunting and fishing- People hunt or fish in most BLM Wilderness Areas. Some people prefer to hunt or fish in wilderness because they enjoy the primitive experience available there. Hunting and fishing in BLM Wilderness, like other BLM lands, is licensed by the State.

Outfitters - BLM-authorized outfitters provide additional recreation opportunities in many Wilderness Areas. Outfitters commonly provide services in river running, hunting, and packing. Outfitters also provide wilderness therapy programs for-at risk youth and wilderness experience programs. Each BLM field office maintains a list of outfitters operating in the local Wilderness Areas.

Disabled use - Wheelchairs can be used in wilderness. In addition, people with disabilities use rafts, canoes, and pack animals to access wilderness. Certain outfitters conduct wilderness trips involving people with and without disabilities.

Search and rescue - Search and rescue occurs within wilderness, normally without on-the-ground vehicles. Vehicles may be used when required in an emergency.

Water rights - Wilderness designation does not affect existing water rights. Because legislative direction has varied on reserved water rights, some Wilderness Areas have a reserved water right, and some do not. When a wilderness is designated with Federal water rights, the effective date of the right is the date of wilderness designation. A Federal water right does not affect older water rights and uses.

                                                        Last Updated: 1/20/2012


National Conservation Lands