The success of wildlife conservation depends on a wide range of solutions envisioned by many people working toward a common goal. No one ever said it would be easy.

Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society wrote the Wilderness Act of 1964 in 1956, but during the nearly nine years before being signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3rd, the law endured 65 rewrites and 18 public hearings!

The Wilderness Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. The law states:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Today the National Wilderness Preservation System includes 757 Congressionally designated wilderness areas comprising about 109.5 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. These wilderness areas are designated on four types of lands managed by the U.S. Government:

  • National forests
  • National parks
  • National wildlife refuges
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands

No National Wildlife Refuge System wilderness was designated by the Wilderness Act in 1964. Instead, the law gave the four agencies 10 years to review their lands and make wilderness recommendations. However, because of public demand, Congress designated wilderness at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey only four years later in 1968 — the first wilderness designated for the Refuge System and the Department of the Interior.

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages more than 20 million acres of wilderness in the Refuge System—about one-fifth of all the designated wilderness areas in the nation. There are 75 wilderness areas on 63 refuges in 25 states.

Common Tern with Chick

The Common Tern with the chick (above) was photographed in the Monomy Wilderness, part of the Monomy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. The United States Congress designated the Monomoy Wilderness in 1970 and it now encompasses a total of 3,244 acres.

To find a Wilderness to explore, check the wilderness data search at To find out about the 50th anniversary celebrations, go to the Wilderness 50th website.

As he so often did, Howard Zahniser summed up the strength of a single National Wilderness Preservation System:

Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration. We are not fighting a rear-guard action, we are facing a frontier. We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all the wilderness there is. We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation, will be always effective in preserving wilderness. We are not fighting progress. We are making it. We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness. We are working for a wilderness forever.

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