Protecting the Wilderness

August 17, 1984

Report Outline
Establishing the System
‘War on Wilderness’
Management Challenge
Special Focus

Establishing the System

Development vs. Environment Protection

There is wilderness and then there is Wilderness. According to the dictionary, wilderness is any uncultivated and uninhabited tract of land. Wilderness with a capital “W,” on the other hand, is something more. Some 82.3 million acres in the United States—about 3.5 percent of the total land area in the nation—are part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, which means they are protected from development. Under the terms of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which President Johnson signed into law 20 years ago on Sept. 3, 1964, no roads, dams or permanent structures may be built on these government-owned lands; motorized vehicles are forbidden; no timber may be cut. Lands in the wilderness system must be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness,” the 1964 law says. The statute defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The United States was the first nation to preserve wilderness lands and the effort was a long and controversial one. But passage of the wilderness law in 1964 did not put an end to the controversy. Today, two decades later, the issues of how much and which land should be added to the wilderness system remain hotly contested. As in the past, the arguments basically follow a development vs. conservation pattern. Environmentalists say that putting lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System is one of the few ways to stop timber, minerals, oil and gas developers from destroying ecosystems, wildlife habitats, watersheds and the other environmental qualities of undeveloped wilderness areas. Development interests, on the other hand, argue that legislation setting aside wilderness areas closes—or “locks up”—land forever without taking into consideration current economic conditions or the nation's future resource needs.

Wilderness areas add up to “a very sizable amount of land being set aside which does lock up the land base,” said Scott Shotwell, vice president for congressional relations with the National Forest Products Association. Shotwell said that protecting wilderness forests from development has added to the enormous problems of the timber industry at a time when high interest rates have held down housing construction. And, Shotwell said, “when the demand comes back for housing, then there's going to be a problem because the land base [for timber] may not be there.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Environmental Protection
Mar. 17, 2023  Forever Chemicals
Sep. 02, 2022  Preserving the Seas
Jun. 17, 2022  Plastic Pollution
Dec. 17, 2021  Endangered Species
Nov. 06, 2020  Preventing Wildfires
Jul. 10, 2020  Circular Economy
Nov. 29, 2019  Climate Change and Health
Sep. 20, 2019  Extreme Weather
Dec. 07, 2018  Plastic Pollution
Dec. 02, 2016  Arctic Development
Apr. 22, 2016  Managing Western Lands
Jul. 18, 2014  Regulating Toxic Chemicals
Sep. 20, 2013  Future of the Arctic
Jun. 14, 2013  Climate Change
Nov. 06, 2012  Vanishing Biodiversity
Nov. 02, 2012  Managing Wildfires
Nov. 04, 2011  Managing Public Lands
Aug. 26, 2011  Gulf Coast Restoration
Jul. 2010  Plastic Pollution
Feb. 2010  Climate Change
Jan. 09, 2009  Confronting Warming
Dec. 05, 2008  Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Nov. 2008  Carbon Trading
Oct. 03, 2008  Protecting Wetlands
Feb. 29, 2008  Buying Green
Dec. 14, 2007  Future of Recycling
Nov. 30, 2007  Disappearing Species
Feb. 2007  Curbing Climate Change
Dec. 01, 2006  The New Environmentalism
Jan. 27, 2006  Climate Change
Oct. 25, 2002  Bush and the Environment
Oct. 05, 2001  Invasive Species
Nov. 05, 1999  Saving Open Spaces
Jun. 11, 1999  Saving the Rain Forests
May 21, 1999  Setting Environmental Priorities
Mar. 19, 1999  Partisan Politics
Oct. 16, 1998  National Forests
Jun. 19, 1998  Environmental Justice
Aug. 23, 1996  Cleaning Up Hazardous Wastes
Mar. 31, 1995  Environmental Movement at 25
Jun. 19, 1992  Lead Poisoning
May 15, 1992  Jobs Vs. Environment
Jan. 17, 1992  Oil Spills
Sep. 20, 1991  Saving the Forests
Apr. 26, 1991  Electromagnetic Fields: Are They Dangerous?
Sep. 08, 1989  Free Market Environmental Protection
Dec. 09, 1988  Setting Environmental Priorities
Jul. 29, 1988  Living with Hazardous Wastes
Dec. 20, 1985  Requiem for Rain Forests?
Aug. 17, 1984  Protecting the Wilderness
Jun. 15, 1984  Troubled Ocean Fisheries
Aug. 19, 1983  America's Disappearing Wetlands
Feb. 22, 1980  Noise Control
Nov. 16, 1979  Closing the Environmental Decade
Oct. 13, 1978  Toxic Substance Control
Feb. 27, 1976  Pollution Control: Costs and Benefits
Nov. 28, 1975  Forest Policy
May 30, 1975  Wilderness Preservation
Dec. 20, 1974  Environmental Policy
Nov. 14, 1973  Strip Mining
Dec. 01, 1971  Global Pollution
Jul. 21, 1971  Protection of the Countryside
Jan. 06, 1971  Pollution Technology
Jun. 19, 1968  Protection of the Environment
Oct. 30, 1963  Noise Suppression
Forests and Rangelands
Land Resources and Property Rights