Wilderness Act 1964

16 U.S.C. §§ 1131-1136, September 3, 1964, as amended 1978.
Overview. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Secretary of the Interior was directed to review every road less area of 5,000 acres or more and every road less island within the national wildlife refuge and national park systems for possible inclusion in the System. The Act also included some national forest lands in the System and directed the Secretary of Agriculture to recommend others. Over 100 million acres have been included in the National Wilderness Preservation System so far.

Findings/Policy. To assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the U.S. and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is the policy of Congress to secure for present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. The Act established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as wilderness areas, to be administered in such a manner that will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.

Selected Definitions. System: National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness: an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain; an area of underdeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation and which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.

National Wilderness Preservation System. All areas within the national forests classified as wilderness, wild, or canoe before the Act was adopted were automatically considered wilderness areas and included in the System. All areas within the national forests classified as primitive were to be reviewed by the Secretary of Agriculture for suitability or non suitability as wilderness. By September 1974, the Secretary was to report to the President, who would recommend wilderness designations to Congress.

The Act also required that land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior be reviewed. All road less areas of 5,000 contiguous acres or more in the national parks, monuments and other units of the national park system, and every road less island within the national wildlife refuges and game ranges were to be reviewed by September 1974. The President was expected to make recommendations to Congress after considering the Secretary’s report on the suitability of the different areas as wilderness.

An area designated by Congress as wilderness would continue to be managed by the department or agency having jurisdiction over it just prior to its inclusion in the System. §§ 1131 and 1132.

Use of Wilderness Areas. The purposes of the Act are within and supplemental to the purposes for which national forests and units of national parks and national wildlife refuge systems are established and administered. Each agency administering any wilderness area is responsible for preserving the area’s wilderness character, administering the area for the other purposes for which it was established in a manner that preserves its wilderness character. With limited exceptions, no commercial enterprise or permanent road is allowed within a wilderness area. Temporary roads, motor vehicles, motorized equipment, landing of aircraft, structures and installations are only allowed for administration of the area. However, the use of aircraft or motorboats may be permitted in wilderness areas where their use has already been established. Measures may be taken to control fire, insects and disease. Nothing in the Act prevents within national forest wilderness any activity, including prospecting, for gathering information about mineral or other resources, if carried on in a manner compatible with the preservation of wilderness. Until December 31, 1983, U.S. mining laws and all laws pertaining to mineral leasing shall extend to wilderness areas, subject to regulations governing ingress and egress. As of January 1, 1984, the minerals in lands designated as wilderness areas are withdrawn from appropriation, subject only to existing rights. Within wilderness areas, the President may authorize prospecting for water resources and the construction of reservoirs and other facilities needed in the public interest, including road construction. The grazing of livestock established prior to September 1964 is permitted to continue. Commercial services may be performed within wilderness areas to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing their recreational and other wilderness purposes. Nothing in the Act constitutes an express or implied claim or denial by the federal government as to exemption from state water laws. The Act also does not affect the jurisdiction of the states with respect to wildlife and fish in the national forests. § 1133.

State and Private Lands Within Wilderness Areas. Where state- or privately-owned land is completely surrounded by national forest lands within areas designated as wilderness, the owner can be given access rights. Alternatively, the land shall be exchanged for federally-owned land in the same state of approximately equal value, provided that the U.S. does not transfer mineral interests unless the state or private owner relinquishes the mineral interest in the surrounded land. The Secretary of Agriculture shall permit ingress and egress, when valid mining claims or other valid occupies are wholly within a designated national forest wilderness area. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to acquire privately-owned land within an area designated as wilderness if the owner concurs and Congress authorizes the acquisition. § 1134.

Gifts, Bequests, and Contributions. The Secretary of Agriculture may accept gifts or bequests of land within wilderness areas for preservation as wilderness. The Secretary also may accept areas adjacent to wilderness areas if the Secretary has given sixty days advance notice to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. The Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior are separately authorized to accept private contributions and gifts to further the purposes of the Act. § 1135.

Annual Reports to Congress. At the opening of each session of Congress, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior shall report jointly on the status of the wilderness system. § 1136.