wilderness skills, lake, fishing, sunset
Photo by Robson Hatsukami

In his classic book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash explained that while the frontier might be gone, wilderness is still with us. Nash had a 30-year career as a university history professor, but he was also a whitewater rafting guide and made the first descent of the Tuolumne River. He knows wilderness. In his book, he explained that before agriculture there was no settled land versus wilderness—“everything was simply habitat.”

The desire to return to an undeveloped environment and live, if only briefly, in the style of Native Americans and frontiersmen still draws us to the wild. Twenty acres of privately owned woods, a few acres around the house or a nearby state park can provide the illusion of wilderness, but does the genuine article still exist? Thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964, it does.

Strong Allies

Two men stand out in the history of the American wilderness movement: Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall. Both had a love for the outdoors and began their careers working for federal conservation agencies. Leopold, born in 1887, was the son of a furniture manufacturer and grew up in Iowa as an avid outdoorsman from the start. He spent his free time exploring nearby woods and streams, and spent summer family vacations on Lake Huron. In 1900, Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, donated money to create the Yale School of Forestry. Leopold was an early graduate of the program and was hired as an assistant forester at the Apache National Forest in Arizona in 1909.

The time and place gave him the opportunity to dress in cowboy duds, travel by horseback, and hunt and fish on a regular basis. It also gave him time to begin to develop what would become known as the “land ethic” in which he argued that nature and wilderness should be preserved for their own value, not necessarily as resources to be used exclusively for the material benefit of humans.

While stationed at Apache National Forest, he proposed that part of the forest be designated as the Gila Wilderness Area, the first federal land to be managed as wilderness. In the 1930s, he became the first professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. He came to believe that predators played an important role in ecosystems and that bears, wolves and cougars should be part of National Forest wilderness areas. In 1949, he published the groundbreaking bestseller A Sand County Almanac, in which he explained his environmental philosophy. Leopold died at 61 fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property, but his book is still in print.

Bob Marshall

Bob Marshall was born the son of a wealthy attorney in 1901. While Leopold was an avid bowhunter and fisherman, Marshall was drawn to hiking and climbing. He was one of the first to climb the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks. He earned a Ph.D. in plant physiology that led to positions as director of recreation for the U.S. Forest Service and chief of forestry in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His career gave him opportunities to work in wilderness in Montana, Idaho and Alaska in the 1920s. He wrote numerous reports advocating for preservation of road-less areas within national forests. Marshall also had a second career as a writer.

In 1930, he lived in the village of Wiseman, Alaska, located 200 miles north of Fairbanks. He conducted a detailed study of the way of life of the residents and published his findings in the book Arctic Village. It was a bestseller, and he divided his royalties equally among the residents of the village. He died of heart disease at the early age of 38.

The Wilderness Society

Based on Leopold’s assertion that a healthy nation required wild landscapes, Marshall, Benton MacKaye, the planner behind the Appalachian Trail, and several others met in 1934 to form an organization dedicated to preserving wilderness. The result was the Wilderness Society, which had a simple mission statement: “protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.”

Marshall quietly provided the funds from his inheritance to pay the organization’s bills in the early years. It took almost 30 years of informing the public and lobbying Congress, but in 1964 the federal Wilderness Act was passed, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. It was the first time a nation created a system to manage wilderness. The initial act preserved 54 areas totaling 9.1 million acres in 13 states, and today the system includes over 109 million acres in 44 states.

Land Management

Under the act, Congress can vote to designate federal land as “wilderness” if it is already under the management of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). An effort to designate federal land as wilderness can be initiated by one of these four federal agencies, the public, the office of the president, or a member of Congress. According to Section 2(c) of the act, a proposed wilderness should be “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.”

Wilderness areas can consist of thousands of acres, but the sizes vary greatly, with the largest being the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness (NPS) in Alaska at 9,078,675 acres and the smallest being the Pelican Island Wilderness (USFWS) on the Florida coast at 5.5 acres. In fact, Pelican Island was the first U. S. wildlife refuge created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Ultimately, a bill must pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president before existing federal land can be declared a wilderness.

Designated Wilderness

Once a wilderness area is designated, the federal agency managing that area does so according to the Wilderness Act and the agency’s mission statement and policies. In an effort to maintain the area’s natural character, the following things are generally not allowed in federal wilderness: wheeled and motorized vehicles (an exception is made for wheelchairs); engines and motors, including boat motors, generators and chainsaws; construction of anything other than trails and foot bridges; and large groups. The idea of “traditional uses” is applied to federal wilderness, making it legal to travel by horseback and canoe and other non-motorized boats as long as you stick within the management plan of the federal agency.

For most federal wildernesses, the maximum group size is 12, and a permit from the federal land managing agency is required if a group is led by commercial guides or a nonprofit organization such as Outward Bound. The purpose of these regulations is to give the visitor to a federal wilderness the experience of being surrounded only by the sounds of nature in a place with “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” as stated in Section 2(c) of the act.

Wilderness Management

USFS wilderness is not necessarily managed the same way that NPS wilderness is managed, since the agencies have different missions and policies. Hunting is normally allowed on USFS and BLM wilderness, but not typically allowed in NPS wilderness because it is within a national park. Federal lands are also routinely managed in compliance with state hunting, fishing and boating regulations. Hunting seasons in USFS and BLM wilderness are normally the same as those established by the state game management agency for the state in which the wilderness is located.

Special hunts that fit the management of particular wildlife refuges are allowed on USFWS wilderness. For example, a USFWS refuge wilderness with the mission of providing habitat for migratory water birds might allow bowhunting for deer, but no duck hunting. Fishing is normally legal in wilderness, typically under state game and fish agency regulations. Foraging for plants is regulated by the managing agency, and it is best to check with the agency before collecting plants, fruit, mushrooms or nuts. Always be sure to read the local regulations for hunting, fishing and foraging.

Only 5 Percent

There are some disadvantages to designated wilderness. As mentioned, trucks, off-road vehicles, outboards motors and chainsaws are not allowed. No one wants to be told they can no longer drive to their deer stand in the nearby national forest, or use an outboard motor on a lake because it is has become part of a designated wilderness. Consider, however, that only 2.7 percent of the land mass in the lower 48 states is made up of federal wilderness.

If the 56,575,848 acres of designated wilderness in Alaska are added, the total wilderness in the U.S. still only makes up 5 percent of the country. Surely a nation as large as this should save at least 5 percent of its territory as wilderness to preserve a “frontier” experience for those who still seek it. With over 450,000 miles of paved and gravel roads, and jeep tracks on USFS and BLM lands, there are still plenty of outdoor adventures that can be reached by vehicle.

Wilderness areas serve as breeding grounds for wildlife and native plants where they can increase in number, then gradually disperse to surrounding areas. Wilderness offers the most realistic chance to test your outdoor and survival skills. For those willing to walk, canoe or ride a horse into a wilderness, uncrowded hunting, fishing and camping are the rewards. Designating wilderness land ensures that a wild area will not become a developed recreation site, or be crisscrossed by roads and parking lots, but will remain in a natural state for future generations. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “in Wilderness is the preservation of the world.” It’s your wilderness, so get out and explore it.

This article is from the winter 2018 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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