Section 508 Navigation
American Trails header Skip Navigation
HomeAbout usTrailsWhat's hotCalendarTrainingResources & libraryPartnersJoin usStore

Trail Tracks opinion forum

The History and Future of Wilderness Legislation

Congress should consider a variety of ways to preserve federal acreage for wildlife and recreational use, before approving more wilderness designations that place public lands out of bounds to most Americans.

From Americans for Responsible Recreational Access

"We hope that future designations will use the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act as a model."

Back in the 18th century when Daniel Boone blazed a trail across Virginia to Kentucky, it was called the Wilderness Road. It served as the principal access route used by settlers seeking land west of the Appalachian Mountains, and it was called "wilderness" because those adventurous settlers were going to a place where few people lived. The trails that existed back then were Indian trails and they were not suited for the wagons used by the settlers to carry their personal belongings. So, to meet the need for westward expansion, Daniel Boone was hired to build that first highway.

Almost two hundred years later, Congress approved legislation that established a new definition for "wilderness." That new definition was designed to keep the modern day Daniel Boones and other settlers from entering certain public lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act was designed to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System on federal lands "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

The Wilderness Act specifically states in Section 4 (c) that:

"Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designed by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area."

In laymen's language, wilderness designation means that an area is totally left to its natural state with minimal impact by man. This means no commercial operations, no motorized or mechanized vehicles, including but not limited to cars, trucks, off-road and all-terrain vehicles, bicycles, aircraft and motorboats. Some exceptions are made for dire emergencies. In some cases, the Congress has stipulated that certain types of motor vehicles can be used in a wilderness area but generally this is for maintenance purposes.

If you want to personally visit a wilderness area, your options are limited. You can enter via foot or on the back of a horse or a mule. Also, don't expect to find any restrooms or drinking fountains, either. You will find a primitive area, much like Daniel Boone found in Kentucky, but without any people or development.

It's amazing how national priorities can change over the course of a couple of centuries. The early days of our nation focused on expansion and development. Now our focus is exclusion and preservation. Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road provided access and today's Wilderness Act provides roadblocks to visiting our public lands.

This is not to say that establishing a wilderness area is a bad thing, because it isn't. There are many areas of the country that merit such designation. And since 1964, the Congress has been very busy doing just that. In fact, today the wilderness system totals more than 694 units encompassing a whopping 106.6 million acres. To put that in perspective, the total land mass of the States of California and Maryland combined (106,526,080 acres to be exact) is almost as much as has been put aside as wilderness areas. And, before this Congress concludes its business in 2008, hundreds of thousands more acres of federal land could be classified as wilderness.

We have recently seen some attempts to balance new wilderness designations with complementary designations for other types of activities. This balanced approach actually occurred in 2006, when Congress approved legislation creating the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), not only created a new wilderness area, but it also created the Cow Mountain Recreation Area recreation area consisting of approximately 51,000 acres. This new recreation area will provide opportunities for OHV recreation, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking and camping.

Wilderness designations are an important and critical component in the management of federal lands. But with more than 106 million acres so designated, perhaps the Congress should begin spending more time designating other areas of our public lands for other recreational use, before approving more wilderness designations thereby placing more federal acreage out of bounds to most Americans. We hope that future designations will use the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act as a model. Its approach in designating a recreation area for off-road motorized recreation, mountain biking and horseback riding deserves to be replicated elsewhere in the United States.

If you want to learn more about the wilderness legislation already introduced in this Congress, please visit ARRA's Federal Legislative Update page for more information.

Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.

American Trails offers this website as a public resource to share ideas and opinions on trails and greenways. We have not evaluated the accuracy, feasibility, or legality of any of the material or articles. The opinions and editorials presented here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or support of American Trails. American Trails does not discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis or race, religion, nationality, or political affliiation.

Related topics:

More resources:

page footer

Contact us | Mission statement | Board of directors | Member organizations | Site map | Copyright | NRT | NTTP