National Wildlife Refuge System

Wilderness — Untrammeled, Natural, Undeveloped, Primitive


For the past two summers, Wilderness Fellows have been evaluating the impacts of nearby development, climate changes, management actions and other factors on wilderness character to better ensure the preservation of the these wild areas for future generations.

There are more than 20 million acres of officially designated wilderness in the National Wildlife Refuge System. While 90 percent of it is in Alaska, there are also wilderness areas in New Jersey (Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge), Ohio (West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge), Georgia (Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge), Oregon and nearly two dozen other states. (Wilderness areas in the National Wildlife Refuge System) (PDF 33 KB).

The Mollie Beattie Wilderness, part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protects the iconic 123,000 member Porcupine Caribou herd, which traverses one of the longest land migration routes of any mammal. 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.
So what is this "wilderness character" that is being monitored? It is essentially defined in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which established a process for federal agencies to recommend wilderness areas to Congress. Ideally, the character of wilderness is:

  • Untrammeled — Wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from the actions of modern human control or manipulation.

  • Natural — Wilderness ecological systems are substantially free from the effects of modern civilization. People have not tampered with fire regimes, water flow or indigenous species, for example.

  • Undeveloped — Wilderness retains its primeval character and influence, and is essentially without permanent improvement or modern human occupation, including motorized vehicles or modern buildings.

  • Solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation — This quality is preserved or improved by management actions that reduce visitor encounters or signs of modern civilization inside the wilderness.


Wilderness Fellows may be assigned to national wildlife refuges, national parks or other public lands.

The 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act will be marked next year. This week, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management are announcing a partnership with the Society for Wilderness Stewardship to plan anniversary activities and events.

Meet the 2012 Wilderness Fellows on national wildlife refuges here.

Read the Refuge System Wilderness Fellows blog here.

Read blogs by all Wilderness Fellows here.



Photo caption from homepage:Chisik Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Credit: Rebekah Jones

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Last updated: August 24, 2012