The rambling spaces of the American West have enchanted generations. Ninety years ago, we decided that it was important to protect that opportunity. The opportunity to be enchanted. The opportunity to be a little person in a big landscape. Today, an untrained eye may wander the horizon and wonder at the rambling wilderness, crisscrossed with barbed wire and game trails. A trained eye however, will settle on the far fence and know that there, beyond that fence, lies the Wilderness.
Wilderness, when defined legally, must meet certain benchmarks and thresholds. It must be larger than 5,000 acres. It must be have outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation and generally appear to be unaltered by works of man. It is suggested that a Wilderness have exceptional geologic, scientific, or ecological value. But above all else, it must obviously wild. It is a place we have chosen to protect from ourselves. Or at least try to. But there are other wildernesses too. Little ‘w’ wildernesses, places that are also wild, and primeval and unaffected, but not yet a designated Wilderness. So how do we decide what is a Wilderness and what is a wilderness? And how do we tell the difference?
The Wilderness Act, passed in in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and gave Congress the authority to designate any qualified tract of federally owned land as Wilderness. At it’s inception, the NWPS included 9.1 million acres. Since then, just over 100 million acres have been added, protecting 5% of the US land area as federally designated Wilderness. Held contiguously, this equals an area slightly larger than the state of California. In comparison, 4 Californias worth of the United States are used as cropland (408 million acres). It will come as no surprise that the largest Wilderness area is located in Alaska. The Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, in the National Park of the same name, spans 9,078,875 acres. And although the majority of Wilderness is in the Western states and Alaska, 44 states have designated Wilderness areas.
Outside of the National Wilderness Preservation System are millions of acres eligible for Wilderness designation. These eligible acres are classified as Potential or Recommended Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, or Roadless Areas, depending on their status and managing agency. Each of these classifications is a stepping stone on the way to becoming a congressionally designated Wilderness Area. Potential Wilderness is an area that has been identified as eligible for Wilderness designation by the managing agency, while Recommended Wilderness is an area that has been identified as desirable for designation. Occasionally, lands are recommended to become Wilderness Study Areas, which are areas that are managed as Wilderness, but not officially designated as such. On lands managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) alone, there are 58,518,000 acres of Inventoried Roadless lands eligible for Wilderness designation; an area roughly the size of Idaho. That is close to half the acreage includes in the NWPS.
What is the most surprising about the 58 million acres of USFS Roadless lands and the 12.5 million acres of BLM Wilderness Study Areas that exist today is that they exist at all. The world’s (and nation’s) first wilderness, the Gila Forest Reserve in New Mexico, was designated over 90 years ago. Since then, urban areas and mineral extraction have exploded and the politics of Wilderness designations have become increasingly complicated. But there still remains progress and there still remains possibility. The most recent Wilderness designation, the 275,840 acre Boulder-White Cloud in Idaho, took over 15 years to bring to the President’s desk. America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2015 was introduced for the 10th time this May (the first was in 1997).
The need and love of wilderness is a long held cultural value that persists today. The continued interest and desire to protect wilderness is ubiquitous, with the majority of westerners supporting conservation initiatives. But where does this love and need for wilderness and wild places come from?