Frequently Asked Questions

What is a wilderness area?

Wilderness designations on parts of our National Forests that give the highest degree of protection. The Wilderness Act (1964) defines wilderness as “land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, …which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…” Wilderness is unique in that only Congress can designate specific areas for wilderness use and protection.

What can I do in wilderness areas?

Hunt, fish, hike, camp, canoe, kayak, swim, picnic, backpack, bird watch, take wildflower walks, ride horses, cross-country ski, snowshoe, go spelunking or rock-climbing, conduct ecological research, lead educational trips. Enjoy the solitude.

Are roads permitted in wilderness areas?

Generally, no. No permanent roads are allowed. However, the law makes a few limited exceptions for temporary roads if absolutely necessary to administer the wilderness area, including protecting public health and safety. Also, access is allowed to private property surrounded by wilderness.

Are all motors banned from wilderness areas?

In order to preserve the wild, natural character of the nation’s wilderness areas, the Wilderness Act prohibits the general use of motorized equipment and transportation. But the Act clearly allows for their use by the U.S. Forest Service (and other managing agencies) for search and rescue operations, firefighting to protect adjacent private land, insect and disease control, and other circumstances where they are the minimum tools necessary for the proper administration of the area.

How are trails maintained in wilderness areas?

In general, only the minimum tools necessary for maintenance are used, normally hand tools. However, power tools can be authorized in emergencies brought on by ice storms, extensive blow-downs, or other events.

Can fires be fought in wilderness areas?

The Wilderness Act specifically states in Section 4(d)(l) that certain measures may be taken to control fire in wilderness areas. These include the use of mechanized equipment, the building of fire roads, fire towers, firebreaks, or pre suppression facilities and other techniques for fire control. In short, anything necessary for public health or safety (for example, protecting adjacent private lands and buildings) is clearly permissible. U.S. Forest Service policy provides for suppression of wild fires in wilderness areas.

Doesn’t wilderness conflict with other uses of the national forest?

No. In fact, not only is wilderness identified as one of the “multiple-uses” for national forests under the law, it is one of the best tools to achieve many of the other designated uses, including recreation, water and soil conservation, and wildlife habitat.

Does wilderness hurt the timber industry and other parts of the economy?

Wilderness preservation is a negligible factor in the availability and production of timber. Let’s look at Virginia as an example. For example, in 1997, less than one percent of the state’s total timber harvest came off the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service figures. And existing wilderness is less than six percent of Virginia’s national forests. Further, timber in designated and potential wilderness areas is generally less accessible and less cost-effective to harvest than on other government and private forestlands. In fact, wilderness can help communities diversify their economy by attracting new businesses, residents and visitors. It also protects scenic backdrops that help improve individual property values, and protects the headwaters of the drinking water supply for many communities.

Does wilderness affect private property?

Not adversely. Only federal land may be designated as wilderness. The Act allows access to private in-holdings. Private property values near wilderness often rise.

Is wilderness designation a new idea?

The tradition of protecting wilderness dates back almost 100 years to the country’s foremost conservationists — Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, to name a few — who recognized the need to set aside America’s wild places to preserve our watersheds, wildlife habitat and the great outdoors from the ever-growing spread of development and commercialization. The National Wilderness Preservation System however, began with the passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964.