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Designated Wilderness

Dave Campbell Photo

The idea to protect outstanding natural areas as national parks, and undeveloped public lands (including undeveloped portions of national parks) as wilderness, originated in the United States. The development, and in particular, the motorization and mechanization of formerly wild areas of the public domain, alarmed conservationists in the early 20th century. The two major public land management agencies at the time – the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the national forests, and the National Park Service, which manages national park lands, were both building roads into wild country, albeit for different reasons. This idea to protect wild back country areas as wilderness was refined by some Forest Service employees like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall (who also worked for the Interior Department), and Arthur Carhart. Other individuals in and out of government including Olaus Murie, Mardie Murie, (the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks), Harvey Broome, Benton MacKaye, Ernest Oberholtzer, and Robert Sterling Yard, all contributed to the wilderness preservation effort.

It fell to Howard Zahniser to synthesize and articulate wilderness as a place and idea in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Zahniser intended that wilderness designation would protect the land and provide for important values, such as primitive recreation, wildlife habitat, and clean water. However, he clearly articulated that wilderness, above all, is a self-willed landscape where modern humans show restraint and allow nature to roll the dice.

In 1964 the Wilderness Act was finally passed by Congress. A total of 9.1 million acres (54 areas in 13 states) of federal public lands were designated Wilderness, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System. This landmark law provided wilderness with statutory protections for the first time: 

“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

Our mission area contains all or parts of three designated wilderness areas:

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was established in 1964 with the passing of the Act. The area straddles both sides of the Bitterroot Range, which forms the Idaho/Montana border. Idaho contains approximately 1,089,059 acres and Montana contains approximately 251,443 acres for a total of 1,340,502 acres. This vast and wild landscape is one of the roughest mountain regions in America, a country of high ridges that drop off into steep-walled canyons. The Wilderness includes most of the Wild & Scenic Selway River, the premiere wild river in the United States. The Forest Service is responsible for the stewardship of the Wilderness. Learn more.

Gospel-Hump Wilderness was established in 1978 under the Endangered American Wilderness Act. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is located to the northeast of this area and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness lies just to its south and east. The entire southern boundary of the Gospel-Hump Wilderness borders the Wild & Scenic Main Fork of the Salmon River. The area has a total of 205,796 acres and the Forest Service is responsible for stewardship of the Wilderness. Learn more.

River of No Return Wilderness was established in 1980 by the Central Idaho Wilderness Act (renamed the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1984). It is almost 2.4 million acres in size, covering a vast array of ridges, deep canyons, glaciated peaks, meadows, and one large rolling plateau – the Chamberlain Basin, which covers 500 square miles. It is also the single largest designated wilderness area in the Lower 48. Learn more.

More News

Hells Canyon Wilderness lies just to the west of our mission area. Learn more.

The underlying legal mandate of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of each area. Learn more.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would add more wilderness areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Learn more.

Below is a video about the late Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg – an architect of the Wilderness Act, and a champion of the people.

Learn about efforts to protect wilderness character.