Wilderness areas are wild, undeveloped, federally protected areas where you can see wildlife in its natural habitat, enjoy adventure and unmechanized recreation, or just relish solitude.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 20 million acres of designated wilderness in the National Wildlife Refuge System — about one-fifth of all the designated wilderness areas in the nation.
You can explore wilderness on 63 refuges in 26 states. About 90 percent of the Refuge System’s wilderness is in Alaska. In the lower 48, some refuge wilderness areas — such as those at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina — are located surprisingly near urban centers.
For many, wilderness conveys spiritual, aesthetic and ethical values, such as a connection with nature and opportunities for personal renewal, inspiration, self-reliance and solitude, and a haven from the pressures of modern society.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also manages more than 14 million acres of proposed wilderness, awaiting Congressional action. Both designated and proposed areas are managed to preserve their wilderness character.
Protecting Our Wildest Places
On September 3, 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, protecting 9.1 million acres of the country’s wildest places for generations to come. The landmark conservation law now protects more than 111 million acres of U.S. wilderness.
The Wilderness Act includes this definition: “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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions...”
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be
— Wallace Stegner, American historian, novelist and environmentalist
The Move to Protect Wilderness
The first European explorers encountered an American continent of almost unbroken wilderness. Within 500 years, it was nearly gone.
The drive to conserve remnants of our wilderness legacy stirred the nation to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. Only Congress can designate wilderness. A Congressional wilderness designation provides greater legal protection than an administrative designation.
The National Wilderness Preservation System established by the Wilderness Act today includes 803 congressionally designated wilderness areas comprising more than 111 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of four federal agencies with stewardship of designated wilderness. The others are the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service.
In addition to the wilderness it administers on 63 national wildlife refuges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also manages a wilderness area at Leadville National Fish Hatchery in Colorado.
Experience Wilderness on a Wildlife Refuge
- By the Numbers
- 63 REFUGES with Wilderness Areas
- 20 MILLION acres of Refuge System Wilderness
- 26 STATES with Refuge Wilderness
Refuge wilderness areas contribute valuable wetlands, coastal islands and deserts to the National Wilderness Preservation System. National wildlife refuges allow visitors to explore wilderness without motor vehicles, motorized equipment or mechanical transport such as bicycles. Some refuges may limit public use to protect wildlife and its habitat.
“Every wilderness area and wilderness experience is different,” says Allison McCluskey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service realty specialist and former Refuge System Wilderness Fellow. “Some wilderness areas are closed to the public so the wildlife can flourish, while others may have multiple established campsites for regular backpackers. Some people visit wilderness for hunting and fishing opportunities, or for a spiritual connection with the earth, or perhaps they don’t visit at all but nevertheless value its existence — and these are all important uses.”
Story: “Wilderness! There’s Nothing Like It”
Map of Refuge System Wilderness
Managing wilderness requires a light hand. Wilderness stewards in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leave the forces of nature unrestrained to the extent possible.
To preserve wilderness character, refuge managers must show that any actions taken are “the minimum require[d] for administering the area as wilderness and necessary to accomplish the purposes of the refuge, including Wilderness Act purposes.” What that means, in most cases: no heavy machinery; no cars, trucks or aircraft; no easy–access roads or landing pads.
When the manager of Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska moves hundreds of bison from winter to spring pastures, he generally uses herders on horseback instead of ATVs, despite the greater labor involved. That’s because the refuge includes 4,600 acres of wilderness. When shrubs clog popular canoe trails at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, managers often dispatch crews with hand clippers, although chainsaws chew up swamp growth faster. That’s because the law restricts the use of heavy machinery on the refuge’s 354,000 acres of wilderness.
But even federally protected wilderness is vulnerable to threats such as habitat loss and fragmentation from nearby development, the invasion of non-native plant and animal species, and climate change. Refuge System experts monitor wilderness areas for threats to their character.
Help Safeguard Wilderness
Follow these steps as you enjoy wilderness areas.
- Practice “Leave No Trace”
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
“If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. ... This
is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, author and conservationist
National Wildlife Refuges with Wilderness
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Becharof National Wildlife Refuge
Innoko National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge
Selawik National Wildlife Refuge
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge
Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
Havasu National Wildlife Refuge (partially in California)
Imperial National Wildlife Refuge (partially in California)
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Farallon National Wildlife Refuge
Havasu National Wildlife Refuge (partially in Arizona)
Imperial National Wildlife Refuge (partially in Arizona)
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge
Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge
J.N. “Ding’’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Key West National Wildlife Refuge
Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge
Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
Breton National Wildlife Refuge
Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge
Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Huron National Wildlife Refuge
Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Seney National Wildlife Refuge
Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge
Mingo National Wildlife Refuge
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge
Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge
West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
Copalis National Wildlife Refuge
Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge
Quillayute Needles National Wildlife Refuge
San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Gravel Island National Wildlife Refuge
Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Wilderness Connect (wilderness history, map and other information)
Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center
Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute