What’s the Technical Difference Between a National Park, Wilderness Area, Wildlife Refuge, Etc.?

Reader Contribution by Ben Beach

What’s the technical difference between a national park, wilderness area, wildlife refuge, etc.?   

Tatum Brown

A lot of people scratch their heads about this. A good starting place is to consider the great fortune each United States citizen has: We inherit 623 million acres, thanks to the foresight of earlier generations. Those lands come in four varieties: national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and western areas overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM, the largest of the four).

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. One myth is that hunting is not allowed in wilderness. In fact, a person may hunt in a wilderness area unless it is within a national park; hunting is illegal in most parks and many wildlife refuges.

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. Some components of our natural systems are changing at rates that are out of sync with the species that depend on them. For example, plants may be flowering earlier, but their pollinators may be delayed in arriving to do their job, with detrimental consequences for both organisms. In a large wilderness, there is a greater chance that these two species will find the right conditions to re-synchronize their life cycles.

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.

The Wilderness Society, in conjunction with many other groups, is constantly trying to protect other wildlands within those 623 million acres that all of us own. We team up with state and local partners knowledgeable about the places and the politics to develop the boundaries of wilderness areas. We join forces with members of Congress, normally from that vicinity, to introduce and pass legislation that adds the land to the NWPS.

As for the four primary land systems, each is managed by a different federal agency, operating under different laws and regulations. Generally speaking, lands within parks and wildlife refuges receive greater protection than acreage in national forests and on BLM lands.

If you would like to take action to help protect wilderness and other special places, you can sign up for our alerts here, and find additional wilderness news here.

— Ben Beach, senior editor,The Wilderness Society