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Where Can I Find More Information on Wilderness Areas?

2/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

Tags: nature, wilderness

I have made a couple of backpacking trips into the wilds of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, and I was deeply moved by the experience of hiking through such wild and beautiful country. Can you tell me what groups are working to preserve the few wild places we have left and how I can help?  Also, where can I find a list of all the official wilderness areas?

I’m glad that the Wyoming trip made such an impression and that you’re eager to help protect our remaining wilderness.

The Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964, created the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). It empowered Congress to permanently protect undeveloped tracts within our 623 million public acres by making them part of the Wilderness System. These areas then belong to not only, say, Yosemite National Park but to the NWPS, as well.

What difference does it make? If land inside Yosemite becomes a wilderness area, it must remain free of roads and structures. Motorized equipment and mechanical transport are not permitted.

Because of the requirements set forth in the Wilderness Act, a visitor to a wilderness area can count on peace and quiet — though the honking of a flock of migratory geese and other natural sounds can cause a stir. The air and water are extra clean. Places like that are harder and harder to find, making wilderness extra special. In addition, large, unfragmented and wild landscapes can provide the habitat that species need to adapt to climate change.

These qualities contribute to yet another: economic benefits. Most obviously, the opportunity for first-class backcountry recreation brings in money from visitors. In addition, business owners — and a high-quality work force — are lured to such areas because of the natural features. The clean water that runs off wilderness watersheds frees downstream communities from spending large sums to make it drinkable. These services are rarely measured, and they undermine claims by some commercial interests that protecting public land from exploitation means financial sacrifice.

The Wilderness Act designated 9.1 million acres of wilderness, and in the ensuing 43 years Congress has expanded the NWPS to 107 million acres. There are 702 wilderness areas, found in every state except Kansas, Iowa, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

You can get involved by contacting the Wilderness Support Center in Durango, Colo., which we created in 1999 to ramp up the pace of protection. Contact: or, or 970-247-8788. Staff members in that office work with partners across the country and can put you together with local organizations in your state or any other. The best source of information on the NWPS.

— Ben Beach, senior editor, The Wilderness Society

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