National Wildlife Refuge System

What is Wilderness?

The National Wildlife Refuge System has more than 20 million acres of designated wilderness. Ninety percent of it is in Alaska, including this area of Becharof National Wildlife Refuge, but there is also designated wilderness in 25 other states.
Credit: Julia Pinnix/USFWS

Student projects could consider topics in environmental history, and the reasons why we, as a nation, have a responsibility to preserve these special natural areas.  It could also be interesting to explore the confluence of events or concerns that led to passage of the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act in the same year.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 set aside large tracts of public land as federally protected wilderness areas. The Act protects extensive natural landscapes managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Wilderness areas represent relatively pristine wild lands and waters that have received extra protections so they remain undisturbed by human activity.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But most of the designated wilderness areas have, at one time, been touched by human development. In essence, Americans have decided which areas are wilderness and thus deserve to be protected.
Congress believed that Americans have a right to enjoy these areas in ways that will allow their enjoyment for generations to come.

Visitors to wilderness areas can enjoy hiking, camping, photography, fishing, hunting and other activities that do not disturb the environment. Potentially damaging activities, including the use of motorized vehicles and bicycles, are prohibited.

Protected public lands had existed in the United States for many years prior to the passage of the Wilderness Act. These lands were managed by various U.S. government agencies for a variety of purposes. For example, the National Park System has traditionally had a strong focus on visitor enjoyment, the Fish and Wildlife Service has concentrated on the conservation of fish and wildlife species and their habitats, the National Forest System allows commercial logging on its lands, and the Bureau of Land Management is rooted in the principle of multiple use including recreation, ranching, and logging. The Wilderness Act added extra protections to lands and waters drawn from all of these agencies, to ensure that these areas remain natural, undeveloped and wild. The Wilderness Act affirms that wilderness areas deserve to be protected because of their inherent value, not just for what they can offer to human visitors.


Wilderness in the National Wildlife Refuge System
Blogs by Wilderness Fellows in the National Wildlife Refuge System
Education Resources from, a consortium of interested conservation groups, federal wildlife management agencies and the University of Montana Wilderness Institute
Information about wilderness protection and management from the Wilderness Society

Last updated: February 27, 2015