Wilderness FAQs

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness 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.” The Act goes on to describe wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Wilderness areas are designated through Congress.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was established to balance our existing policy of building dams in watersheds and river systems to provide water, power and flood control – with a new policy of protecting these rivers, and preserving their free-flowing nature and natural ecosystem.

A “roadless area” is an unprotected, or potential, wilderness area. Generally, a roadless area meets the congressional definition of wilderness, but it remains unprotected from logging, roadbuilding, motorized use and other damaging activities.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 defined a road as a route that is improved and maintained to ensure continuous use. Therefore, a route created only by continuous (legal or illegal) vehicle use is not a road. The Forest Service defines a road as a route that is passable by a standard passenger vehicle.

While wilderness designation provides great protection for public lands, it doesn’t protect wild rivers from dams and diversions. Wild and scenic designation also specifies how rivers ought to be managed on public lands and in the river corridor–protecting their outstanding values.

Hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, swimming, backpacking, horseback riding, rafting, skiing, snow-shoeing, bird-watching and many other non-mechanized forms of recreation are allowed in wilderness areas.

The Wilderness Act protects our wilderness areas from damaging activities — including logging, roadbuilding, and motorized use such as dirt motorcycles. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers from dams, diversions and mining.

Both mining and grazing are allowed, so long as their use, or claim to future use, were established before designation as wilderness or wild and scenic river. Land management agencies may require additional environmental safeguards to protect the natural integrity of the wilderness area.

Wilderness designation applies only to public lands and doesn’t infringe on property owners ability to develop their land as they see fit. Wild & Scenic designation also has no impact on private property and leaves all zoning decisions up to local governments. Studies show that private property values increase near federally protected lands and rivers.

Existing water rights aren’t impacted by either wilderness or wild and scenic designation.

The land management agency – the Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management — that administered the area before it became wilderness typically retains control.

Once an area becomes wilderness, land managers can still use fire as a tool to restore fire-dependent ecosystems. In addition, federal agencies are allowed to suppress fires in wilderness and may even use mechanized fire-fighting equipment if they so choose.

Dams alter natural river flows, impact natural water temperatures, reduce water quality, block the natural migration of species and prevent the downstream movement of sand, gravel and nutrients. Dams have played a key role in the extinction and decline of many fish and other aquatic species. California has more extinct, endangered, or threatened aquatic species than any other state.

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