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National Wilderness Preservation System


  The National Wilderness Preservation System

downWilderness is America's Legacy
downEstablishment of the National Wilderness Preservation System
downWilderness Benefits
downNWPS Table

  Wilderness is America's Legacy

cave photoWilderness is an indispensable part of the American story. Native Americans depended on the bounty of wilderness for survival and held Earth and its wild places sacred. As Europeans arrived and settled the continent, they viewed the vast wilderness as places to be conquered. Lewis and Clark were inspired by the untamed beauty and foresaw how then-wild country would contribute to a burgeoning nation's wealth. Over time, wild lands were developed at an alarming rate to meet the demands of an exploding population. The essential wildness of America was tamed and transformed and, in some cases, lost. As Americans realized that the long-term health and welfare of the nation was at risk, a vision for conservation emerged.



president Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act of 1964
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In 1964, our nation's leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly-unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System to "…secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." These areas are sources of clean water and air and protect habitats for wildlife. One who visits wilderness finds exceptional scenic beauty, natural sounds, and opportunities for challenging recreation, inspiration, rejuvenation and solitude. For many Americans, just knowing wilderness is there inspires pride and a sense of responsibility.

2004 marked the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and Americans from all walks of life can value wilderness as part of their heritage. Indispensable to the American past, the legacy that is wilderness will remain indispensable to the American future. Wilderness is every American's story.

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  Establishment of the National Wilderness Preservation System

Wilderness Act of 1964 "…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

In 1964, Congress established the National Wilderness Preservation System under the Wilderness Act. From the swamps of the southeast to the tundra in Alaska, from the hardwoods of the northeast to the deserts of the southwest, wilderness is found in all but six states. The Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and the National Park Service are charged to preserve the natural condition of these lands and provide outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined wilderness experiences.

Federal lands qualifying as wilderness must be designated by Congress through legislation. In some cases, federal agencies recommend suitable lands. In other instances, citizens put forward proposals for consideration by Congress. The process culminates when the legislation is passed by Congress and is signed by the President. This secures "…for the American people of present and future generations an enduring resource of wilderness."

  photos of an elk, alaskan brown bear, moose and collered lizard
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  Wilderness Benefits

Wilderness areas contribute significantly to our nation's health and well-being. The benefits these areas provide are as diverse as the areas themselves and far exceed the mere acreage protected. Yet protection does not ensure sanctuary from events that threaten wilderness character. The federal managing agencies, together with American citizens, must rise to the challenge of protecting these benefits and preserving our wilderness legacy.

  • Water and Air—Americans value wilderness most because these areas are sources of clean water and air. While the benefits of wilderness transcend its boundaries, they are threatened by forces outside wilderness. Pollution decreases water and air quality that people, plants and animals rely on. Preserving wilderness preserves clean water and air.
  • Wildlife—Americans value the wildlife that is protected in wilderness, from grizzly bears to wildflowers. Wilderness protects natural processes, including natural disturbances like fire, which give rise to rich biodiversity. Wildlife is threatened by non-native species, pollutants, and the suppression of natural processes. Preserving wilderness preserves wildlife.
  • Legacy—Americans from all walks of life value the wilderness legacy. This legacy is passed on from generation to generation by many who will never visit wilderness, yet value its undisturbed quality. Failure to preserve the untrammeled and natural conditions of these areas threatens this legacy. Preserving wilderness character preserves our wilderness legacy.
  • Recreation—Wilderness was created for the use and enjoyment of the American people. Yearly, over 12 million people visit wilderness to hike, ride horses, hunt, fish, ski, float, take pictures and stargaze, to name a few. Many people who visit wilderness are inspired and humbled by the feeling of being part of something larger than one's self. Wilderness is a haven for self-discovery and rejuvenation. Visitors must be aware that high use of sensitive areas threatens the untrammeled quality of wilderness. Preserving the integrity of wilderness preserves its unique recreational value.
  • Economics—Wilderness areas have a positive impact on local and regional economies. Counties with wilderness generally have higher income and employment growth rates. From sales to service, the economic benefits of wilderness influence every avenue of business that relies on this resource. Diminishing wilderness character threatens the far-reaching economic benefits of wilderness. Preserving wilderness helps to preserve a healthy economy.

All Americans can value wilderness as part of their heritage. Every citizen has a responsibility to ensure that the wilderness we have today remains wild for future generations to enjoy tomorrow.

  photos of forest, cactus, river and mounatin climbers
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chart showing percent wilderness by state, Alaska and California are the highest
Chart showing percent wilderness by State.


chart comparing the number of wildernesses by size, most are in the 10 to 50 thousand acres range
Chart comparing the number of wildernesses by size.


  to the NWPS table


  Adapted from the National Atlas of the United States®, 2004, National Wilderness Preservation System - Wall Map, Stock Number 101414.
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