What is Wilderness

Creek in Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho

Jason Kauffman

Today, about 235 million acres of federal wildlands have been permanently protected as wilderness, parks, refuges or other protected areas.

But that’s only a third of our public lands. And about 100 million acres of pristine wildlands are still at risk.

Wilderness is also the term used for the government’s highest form of land protection — federally designated wilderness. There are many ways to protect America’s wilderness. In protecting wilderness, we are safeguarding for current and future generations the outdoor spaces enjoyed by every American.

Wilderness designations

Wilderness areas are designated by Congress on federal public lands. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) to include all designated Wilderness areas. The wilderness system now includes 111 million acres in hundreds of wilderness areas.

The lands that can be designated as wilderness are:

National parks

Some of America’s most iconic national parks include Yellowstone, Acadia and Yosemite.

National forests

Our national forests — home to clean water sources and incredible recreation opportunities. Forty-one states contain national forest lands.

Bureau of Land Management lands

Once known as the “lands nobody wanted,” Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands are now some of the most sought after lands in our country and contain some of the most unique archeological and ecological resources on the continent.

Fish and Wildlife Service lands

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for managing America’s National Wildlife Refuges. There are 553 national wildlife refuges, and they protect more than 150 million acres of wetlands, forests, prairies and seashores. There are about 20 million acres of designated Wilderness in the Refuge System.

Other types of designations

Not all protected public lands are designated as wilderness. There are other types of designations, such as:

National Monuments

The president can protect America’s public lands, waters and historical icons as National Monuments by using the Antiquities Act. Congress can also designate public lands as national monuments. 

National Recreation Areas

Congress is responsible for designating lands as an National Recreation Area (NRA). Some of America’s most celebrated NRAs include Lake Mead, Sawtooth and Golden Gate.

National Conservation Areas

A National Conservation Areas (NCA) includes lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the National Landscape Conservation System. Some well-known NCAs include Dominguez-Escalante, Red Cliffs and Red Rock Canyon.

Historic and scenic trails

These trails follow a route of national significance in American history. Some trails that you can follow today include the Pony Express and Lewis and Clark.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

The Wild and Scenic River System was established by Congress to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values.

Quilted together, America’s lands make up a patchwork of protected areas that we can enjoy for generations to come.

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