Wilderness areas: Uses, benefits, and stewardship


In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Forest Service scientists, managers, and partners have published a new report that describes the benefits wilderness areas provide and proposes stewardship strategies for them.

Linville Gorge Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Photo by Frank Kehren.

Wilderness areas are protected at a higher level than all other federally managed lands. They have expanded greatly since their creation in 1964, now encompassing more than 109 million acres — about 16% of all federally managed lands.

More people live near and recreate in wilderness areas than ever before, especially in the western United States. Recreation provides income for gateway communities that surround wilderness areas — boosting their economies through services such as outfitting, lodging, restaurants, bars, and transportation. Wilderness gateway communities may be ideal destinations for people to relocate permanently, bringing businesses, transfer payments, and income with them.

The socioeconomic context for wilderness policy actions and management interventions has radically changed since the signing of the Wilderness Act. Americans today are more ethnically and racially diverse. Immigration, wealth, education, age profiles, and the availability of leisure time are leading to rapid increases in nature-based recreation and wilderness use.

How society perceives and values wilderness and wildlands is also changing, offering opportunities to explore how wilderness can benefit the American public in new ways. A growing awareness of the need for environmental justice for Native Americans has led to new strategies in the use of wilderness designations and practices that support tribal cultural values.

Wilderness areas deliver several other benefits to Americans, including some important for mitigating climate change. Wilderness areas store as much carbon as all other federal lands combined. The average annual value of this stored carbon is about $2.2 billion. Plus, a disproportionately large share of renewable freshwater flows from them. Twenty-one states have at least one wilderness area that serves as a major water source for surrounding and distant communities. This water supply affords the greatest economic benefits in regions where water is scarce.

Jerry Peak Wilderness, Boulder White Cloud Mountains, Idaho. USDA Forest Service photo.

Direct stresses, such as recreational overuse, combined with indirect stresses — such as more intense wildfire regimes and forest pest outbreaks, increasingly severe drought and storm events, and growing numbers of biological invasions — are creating novel challenges for wilderness managers. This report is intended to help the public, communities, elected officials, and land managers better understand the benefits that federally designated wilderness lands provide and to serve as a resource in their efforts to steward wilderness and wildlands.

Twenty experts from tribal nations, universities, federal agencies, and other organizations wrote the report together. The report was edited by Thomas Holmes, an emeritus research economist with the Southern Research Station. It represents a major collaboration between the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, the Bureau of Land Management of the National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Thomas Holmes at tom.holmes@usda.gov.

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