Back in 1964, some forward-thinking folks realized that “wild life” doesn’t just mean plants and animals. It also means the land that this country and its plants and animals have called home for hundreds of years.
With that in mind, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed on Sept. 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act to protect some of the country’s wild lands, making the United States the first country to conserve wilderness areas through law.
Esetuk glacier, Mollie Beattie Wilderness, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: wilderness.net)
Our Deputy Director, Rowan Gould, is signing a Memorandum of Understanding today acknowledging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take part in events to mark the Act’s 50th anniversary.
But what exactly is wilderness?
It’s not the city park or any overgrown area. Not even all National Wildlife Refuges qualify as wilderness. The Act itself defines wilderness as an area “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Wilderness is the land as our ancestors and their ancestors saw it – undeveloped, untamed and untrammeled.
Four federal agencies oversee all wilderness:
- The Bureau of Land Management manages almost 9 million acres of wilderness.
- The Fish and Wildlife Service manages about 21 million acres.
- The Forest Service manages about 36 million acres.
- The National Park Service manages almost 44 million acres.
Here are some other facts about wilderness under Fish and Wildlife Service stewardship:
- The Service stewards the smallest wilderness area, Pelican Island, in northern Florida. It’s just 6 acres in size.
- The biggest wilderness area under Service stewardship is the 8 million acres of the Mollie Beattie Wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The biggest wilderness area of all is the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, also in Alaska, with more than 9 million acres.
- The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness in New Jersey is about 26 miles west of Manhattan's Times Square.
- The Fish and Wildlife Service stewards the most island wilderness areas, many of which were designated to protect nesting seabirds. The largest island chains protected as wilderness are the Aleutian Islands, Florida Keys, islands along the Oregon and Washington coasts, and Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands.
- The Kofa Wilderness protects one of Arizona's largest desert bighorn sheep populations.
- Cape and Lighthouse Islands, in North Carolina’s Cape Romain Wilderness, receive the greatest density of loggerhead sea turtle nests north of Cape Canaveral, Florida, with totals averaging 1,000 nests per year.
For more info on public/private partnerships and wilderness heritage, check out wilderness.net.