1964: Wilderness Act

Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act designated all previously existing Wild Areas, Canoe Areas, and Wilderness Areas as Wilderness. At the time, these areas on national forests totaled 9.1 million acres and represented the entire National Wilderness Preservation System.

Approximately 5.5 million acres of Primitive Areas (established by the L-20 Regulation) were to be reviewed by the Secretary of Agriculture, who would then make recommendations for inclusion as Wilderness within ten years. By 1979, 23 of the 34 Primitive Areas had been designated as Wilderness by Congress.

In addition to creating the National Wilderness Preservation System--which now includes wilderness areas on national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands--the Wilderness Act shifted authority for wilderness designations from the land management agencies, such as the Forest Service, to Congress.

In its own words, the Wilderness Act sought to, "assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition..."

Along with its substantive provisions, the Wilderness Act also offered a definition of wilderness that continues to influence philosophical and legal debates on the topic.

Congress determined, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."


"Briefing on Primitive Areas in the National Forest System," Statement of M. Rupert Cutler, Assistant Secretary for Conservation, Research, and Education, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Before Subcommittee on Public Lands of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, July 24, 1979.

Public Law 88-577, 88th Congress, S. 4, September 3, 1964.