Wilderness Preservation Act, U.S.A.

Part of the Biodiversity Crisis Curriculum Collection.

John Thomas

Provinces Mountains Wilderness, Mojave National Preserve, California. Photo © George Wuerthner.

The Wilderness Preservation Act, passed in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set forth criteria for designating lands for inclusion in this system. According to the act, wilderness must have the following characteristics: absence of significant human impact; opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation; a size of at least 5,000 acres; and outstanding ecological, geological, or scenic value.

Wilderness status protects an area from the building of roads and dams, timber cutting, the operation of motorized vehicles, and new livestock-grazing and mining operations. There are currently about 475 wilderness areas, covering 104 million acres. Although this may seem like a lot, it represents only four percent of the United States land area; moreover, two-thirds of this designated wilderness lies in Alaska.

A recent addition to the wilderness system is an eight-million-acre area under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, and the next major addition may come in the spectacular redrock canyonlands of Utah. Some of that potential acreage lies within Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, which was established in 1996. Congress is debating legislation to give wilderness designation to millions of acres in Utah, but quick resolution is unlikely.

Wilderness is vital to the preser­vation of biodiversity because these lands protect the genetic variety within species, as well as the ecosystems that they depend on. The United States has more than 260 distinct ecosystem types, and only 160 are currently protected in wilderness areas. But even these protected ecosystems are threatened by degradation from air and water pollution, mining and logging operations, and livestock grazing.

Besides protecting biodiversity, wilderness provides irreplaceable ecological services that human society requires. Watersheds supply us with drinking water, and forests help control global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The wealth of species living in these wilderness areas may even hold the secrets to future medical cures. The study of undisturbed wildlands will also allow us to understand better how human activities have altered the North American landscape. This knowledge is essential if we are to restore degraded lands and protect the wilderness that remains.

This is an excerpt from THE BIODIVERSITY CRISIS: LOSING WHAT COUNTS, edited by Michael J. Novacek, a publication of the New Press. © 2000 American Museum of Natural History. To order the book, call 1-800-233-4830.