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Frequently Asked Questions: Wilderness in General

What is a wilderness area?

A wilderness area is designated land set aside by Congress to preserve its wild state and all of the values associated with that wilderness – scenic beauty, solitude, wildlife, geological features, archaeological sites, and other features of scientific, educational, or historical value.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 stated that "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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…" The Wilderness Act further stipulates that wilderness areas should be without permanent improvements of human habitation, affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, composed of "federally owned areas designated by Congress as ‘wilderness areas,’ and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyments as wilderness…"

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How is wilderness established?

Designated wilderness is carved out of America’s public lands – land already set aside as National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and lands managed by the BLM. It is created by specific acts of Congress designating particular areas as wilderness. Today, there are more than 95.3 million acres of wilderness protected in National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and BLM lands. Nearly two-thirds of this designated wilderness is in Alaska.

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Why is wilderness important?

Wilderness areas are important because they provide long-term protection to the last of our nation’s wild country, country that contains spectacular beauty, maintains spiritual values, supports native plants and animals, and provides opportunity for primitive recreation.

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Where did the idea of wilderness come from?

There is a long history of the land protection ethic in America. In the 1850s President Grant set aside land in Yosemite that would become Yosemite National Park. In 1872, Yellowstone was made the first National Park. The first bill to create a National Wilderness Preservation System was introduced in 1956. The 1964 wilderness Act took eight years, eighteen hearings, and sixty-six revisions to become law.

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How "natural" must the land be to qualify as wilderness?

An area is considered to be natural if the imprints of human intrusion are "substantially unnoticeable." The Wilderness Act specifically permits trails, bridges, fire towers, pit toilets, fire rings, fish habitat enhancement facilities, fencing, and research monitoring devices. Other human impacts are permitted in Wilderness areas, so long as their overall impact is substantially unnoticeable. Sights and sounds of activities occurring outside an area are not considered when assessing naturalness, even if these activities are quite prominent.

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What activities are allowed in a wilderness area?

Non-motorized recreation including horseback riding, non-commercial herb gathering, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting are allowed. Agencies may maintain and construct trails in wilderness. The use of wheelchairs, including motorized wheelchairs, is permitted in wilderness areas when the wheelchair is a medical necessity. Grazing is allowed to continue at levels consistent with sound resource management if it existed prior to the designation of the area as a wilderness.

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What activities are not allowed in wilderness?

The Wilderness Act prohibits such activities as mining, chaining, water development, and timber harvest (although mining may occur where there is a valid pre-existing right to mine). The Wilderness Act also prohibits use of motorized vehicles in wilderness except under emergency circumstances. This means that chain saws, trucks, cars, bulldozers, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and other motorized equipment cannot be used within wilderness areas. Mountain bikes are not permitted in wilderness areas.

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What’s the difference between a wilderness and a National Park?

Wilderness areas are defined as roadless areas on public lands that have been designated by Congress to be preserved in a primitive condition. Parts of many National Parks are also preserved in a largely natural condition in which roads, mechanical devices and permanent structures are not allowed. However, National Parks can also include developed, roaded areas. With few exceptions, grazing and hunting are not allowed in parks, whereas they are allowed in wilderness areas.

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Why not use some other form of protection for wilderness?

A wilderness area is protected by law (the 1964 Wilderness Act) and the status can only be changed by an act of Congress. Congress has carefully defined wilderness, established a uniform national system of wilderness and given clear guidance as to how wilderness must be managed. Other designations such as primitive areas give temporary protection but the protection can be modified or removed by the signature of an appointed administrative official. Other categories, such as conservation areas and recreation areas lack the statutory foundation of the Wilderness Act to guide their permanence and integrity.

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Will roads be closed by wilderness designation?

Only areas which are currently roadless and undeveloped qualify for wilderness designation. Areas with constructed, regularly maintained roads do not qualify for wilderness and are not included in the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal for Utah, (America’s Redrock Wilderness Act.)

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What about private and state land in proposed wilderness areas?

Reasonable access to state lands and private property, by such means as motorized vehicles, is allowed within wilderness, but the land management agency generally attempts to acquire these inholdings on a willing-seller basis. The intent of America’s Redrock Wilderness Act is to exchange state lands within wilderness for federal lands located elsewhere.

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