The Wilderness Act – 1964-2014

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the landmark conservation bill that created a way for Americans to protect their most pristine wildlands for future generations. The 1964 Wilderness Act, written by The Wilderness Society's Howard Zahniser, created the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), which today protects more than 109 million acres of wilderness areas in the United States. 

Providence Mountains wilderness area

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964, he created one of the nation’s most cherished wildland systems, which preserves the wildest of our wild lands with the highest level of government protection. The NWPS includes wilderness on four types of lands managed by the U.S. Government:

  • National forests
  • National parks
  • National wildlife refuges
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands

Upon signing the Wilderness Act, President Johnson said: "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. Today, 50 years later, the NWPS has grown to include 758 areas (109,511,038 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year. Overall, however, only about 5% of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness.

The Wilderness Act:

  • Created a way for Congress and Americans to designate "wilderness areas," which represent the nation's highest form of land protection. No roads, vehicles or permanent structures are allowed in designated wilderness. A wilderness designation also prohibits activities like logging or mining.
  • Created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which manages the nation’s protected wilderness areas.
  • Immediately put 9.1 million acres of wild American lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System, protecting them as designated wilderness.

Today, millions of Americans enjoy wilderness areas for hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing and more. The Wilderness Act continues to protect unspoiled wildlands with the possibility of new designations each year.

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines "Wilderness" as areas where the earth and its communities of life are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who do not remain.

[Sources: The Wilderness Society www.wilderness.org and www.wilderness.net]

Find more history, photos, and videos visit The Wilderness Society 

To learn more about the Wilderness Act and the National Wilderness Preservation System, visit  Wilderness.net 

For events, conferences, and exhibits in celebration of the 50th anniversary, see the Wilderness50 coalition’s website, Celebrating 50 Years of American Wilderness, hosted by the Wilderness Institute.

You are also invited to visit The Wildlands Conservancy and the Mojave Desert Land Trust for more wilderness information.