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Frequently Asked Questions

What is Wilderness?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System, a nationwide system of federally protected lands known as wilderness areas. Today there are 758 wilderness areas across 44 states and Puerto Rico. Together, they represent over 109 million acres, or about 5 percent of all U.S. land.

To learn more about where these Wilderness areas are, check out this interactive map.

What Makes Wilderness Unique From Other Protected Lands?

There are many types of public lands that fall along a spectrum of management and protection. They include national forests, national monuments, national parks, national preserves, national recreation areas, wilderness areas, as well as their state, local and tribal equivalents.

Wilderness areas represent the most highly protected public lands in the country. Along with Strict Nature Preserves, they represent the “wildest of the wild lands” remaining in our country. Because they are the most highly protected lands, wilderness areas are subject to strict criteria that are monitored by various federal agencies. In a nutshell, wilderness areas:

  1. Are affected primarily by the forces of nature. Indications of human interference must be substantially unnoticeable.
  2. Provide outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation. Wilderness areas allow restorative, enriching activities like camping and hiking for individuals and groups.
  3. Are large enough to allow use while maintaining natural conditions. Most wilderness areas contain at least 5,000 acres.
  4. Contain features of ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

How is Wilderness Created?

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of government land management agencies, conservation groups, and ordinary citizens, wilderness areas continue to grow. Wilderness areas are created when agencies, groups and people like you recommend new areas to become wilderness. Congress considers these recommendations and when both the House of Representatives and Senate agree on the same recommendation, Congress enacts wilderness legislation. The President then signs or vetoes that wilderness bill. When both Congress and the President successfully pass the wilderness legislation, a new wilderness area is designated.

Who Oversees Wilderness Areas?

The stewardship of wilderness areas is entrusted to four different federal land management agencies. They are the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. While their monitoring and care approaches may vary, their mission is the same; to care for and protect wilderness areas and its natural inhabitants for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations of Americans.

Smithsonian Channel Presents

Premiering on September 7 at 9 pm, this special Wilderness-themed episode of "Aerial America" provides a bird's eye view of some of America's most spectacular wilderness areas while weaving an an inspiring tale about the people, events and places that made the Wilderness Act possible. Learn more.