National Wildlife Refuge System

Wilderness Stewardship Policy Seeks To Improve Refuge System Wilderness Management


November 13, 2008 — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced an updated and revised Wilderness Stewardship Policy that will improve the National Wildlife Refuge System's stewardship of lands designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The policy is the Service's first revision since the original Wilderness Stewardship Policy was issued in 1986.

The new Wilderness Stewardship Policy clarifies that refuge visitors may use only non-motorized and non-mechanized equipment in designated wilderness areas while hunting, fishing or enjoying other appropriate wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities. In addition, it provides Service managers with the first-ever guidance on wilderness review of Refuge System lands to help them determine whether those lands should be recommended for wilderness designation. Such reviews are primarily conducted during the Comprehensive Conservation Planning process, which establishes long-term management objectives for each refuge.

"Our Wilderness Stewardship Policy reconfirms the Service's commitment to protecting and preserving the wilderness resource while accomplishing the mission of the Refuge System," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall. "This policy will preserve the wild and natural character of wilderness within the Refuge System while providing opportunities for the public to enjoy the solitude of these special areas."

Among its many other provisions, the Wilderness Stewardship Policy also provides guidance on development of wilderness stewardship plans and clarifies when prohibited uses may be necessary for wilderness preservation.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System and a process for federal land management agencies—including the Service—to recommend wilderness areas to Congress. Only Congress has the authority to designate lands and water as wilderness.

Congress has designated more than 20 million acres on 63 national wildlife refuges as wilderness. Nearly 20 percent of the 107-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System is on Refuge System lands.

The updated Wilderness Stewardship Policy issued today will ensure consistency with several new management policies established in recent years—including those governing the Mission, Goals and Refuge Purposes, Appropriate Refuge Uses, and Wildlife-Dependent Recreation—as well as the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. It also reflects other developments in the policy and science of managing the Refuge System and wilderness.

Some provisions of the policy:
  • The policy affirms that the Refuge System generally will not modify ecosystems, such as creating new impoundments, species population levels or natural processes in refuge wilderness unless doing so maintains or restores biological integrity, diversity or environmental health that has been degraded or is necessary to protect or recover threatened or endangered species.

  • The policy guides the determination of whether a proposed refuge management activity, such as protecting habitat for a threatened or endangered species, constitutes the minimum requirement for managing a refuge as wilderness.

  • The policy permits appropriate recreational uses in wilderness areas in accordance with the Refuge Improvement Act, if such wildlife-dependent recreation (hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, environmental education and interpretation) is non-motorized, non-mechanized and compatible with the refuge purpose and mission.

  • The policy describes the process that the Refuge System follows in conducting wilderness reviews in accordance with the refuge planning process as outlined in the planning policy.

  • The policy addresses special provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act for wilderness stewardship in Alaska.

To view the policy, visit

The policy will be published in the Federal Register on Monday, November 17, 2008.

- Back -

Last updated: August 19, 2009