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What is a Wilderness Area?

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act for the purpose of preserving natural areas largely untouched by human hands. While it did not bring new lands into federal control, it did change the status of those lands to be designated as Wilderness Areas. The major impetus behind the Act was the recognition by land managers and environmentalists that the amount of land that remained in a primitive condition was quickly being eroded away by development and industrial activity such as logging and mining. Acreage has been continually designated as Wilderness since the passing of the act, with the largest amount of such lands located in Alaska. The smallest Wilderness Area is the five acre Pelican Island in Florida.

The Wilderness Actís main purpose is to protect the designated areas from development, resource extraction and any sort of mechanized activity. While camping, hiking, and horseback riding are allowed, the use of off road vehicles and mechanized equipment is strictly prohibited. (There is an exception to this in that the district ranger can decree the use of things such as vehicles and chainsaws in emergency type events such as wildfires or rescue operations. However, fires are typically allowed to burn naturally on these lands, so be especially aware of your surroundings if using Wilderness Areas during fire season.)

Currently, designated Wilderness Areas are maintained by four different federal agencies, depending on which agency was formerly responsible for management prior to designation. Those agencies are the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Wilderness Areas can be stand alone tracts, but more often are the more remote areas of large tracts of federal land. If you are planning a visit, be sure to contact the district office or ranger station responsible for your particular Wilderness so that you can receive current updates on weather, trail closures, fire conditions and regulations specific to that area.

Visiting a Wilderness Area can be as simple as a daylong hike or a daunting multi-day excursion to even reach the designated area. Trails in the areas are typically maintained, but roads are non-existent. Terrain can vary from rugged mountains on the continental divide to sweeping grasslands that extend for as far as the eye can see. For an experienced hiker with excellent map, compass, and survival skills, the Wilderness Areas of the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains are among some of the most rewarding in terms of the solitude that you will find and the stunning unspoiled beauty. For novices, guide services are readily available to take you on the adventure of a lifetime.

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