National Wildlife Refuge System

Celebrate 50 Years of Wilderness!


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Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, AK - Shishaldind and Sanotski volcanoes
Credit: Brian Gladspell/USFWS

Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956, eight years before it would become the law of the land.  That final legislation included Zahniser’s eloquent definition of wilderness:

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Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, MN
Credit: Rachael Carnes/USFWS


“A wilderness, in contract with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Zahniser died less than five months before the Wilderness Act was signed on September 3, 1964, by Lyndon B. Johnson - but his legacy lives on.

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J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Credit: Vicky Joray


The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness through law. The law has not been substantially amended since it was passed 50 years ago. About five percent of the entire United States is officially protected as wilderness, with more than half of it in Alaska. The Refuge System has more than 20 million acres of wilderness, about 20 percent of the National Wilderness Preservation System. People may not build any permanent structures on designated wilderness areas but there are many wilderness recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, paddling and fishing.


There are designated wilderness areas on 63 national wildlife refuges in 26 areas, including desert and swamp, tundra and mountain, river and ocean. The first wilderness area within the Department of the Interior was designated in 1968 at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.

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Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, NJ
Credit: USFWS


Learn more about refuge wilderness here.

Is there a wilderness area close to you? Find out here.


Last updated: August 22, 2014