NATURE NOTE – Number 85                                                                          January 28, 2024


Back in NATURE NOTES # 7 and # 29 I discussed who owns the forests, and the differences between the National Park Service and the U. S. Forest Service.  This time let’s address…

Our Current Topic:  Wilderness Areas

“Wilderness” is used in many settings of history. The early European settlers describe their first views of the New World as being a wilderness.  Daniel Boone struck out to explore the Kentucky wilderness, and it provided the name for a brutal battle in Northern Virginia in 1864.  But here we are going to talk about the formal government definition that applies, currently, to over 110 million acres of protected lands in the National Forests, National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and other federally owned land.  Congress passed The Wilderness Act of 1964 that directed specific parcels of land (currently over 800 areas) to be designated as Federal Wilderness to prohibit the development and destruction of the resources in these geographically identified places.  The idea was to allow this land to be untouched by man and to grow and evolve as nature intended.  These phrases are used in the Act to describe “wilderness”:

  • …designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…
  • …Untrammeled by man …
  • …the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…
  • …retaining its primeval character…

Overall, Wilderness designation is the highest form of protection available for public lands.  The act has become the model for other countries to follow in establishing their own land preservation practices.  While generally praised at the time by environmental and outdoor groups, as well as today’s environmentally focused public, there were some negative impacts of the Act.  In the west, the Act removed some National Forest land from timber procurement by timber companies.  Some of the small rural towns were affected by the closing of sawmills that no longer had access to timber under Forest Service management.  Jobs and tax revenues were gone and hard to replace in remote localities.  In other cases, recreation-related businesses were closed when they could no longer offer their services to visitors.  

So what can you do and what can’t you do on Wilderness designated land of the U. S. government?  No permanent roads or commercial enterprises can be established. In general, no mechanized equipment, including drones, chain saws, vehicles, ATVs, etc. are allowed, nor are any structures. Mining claims cannot be filed on these lands, and timber cannot be harvested.  Grazing is permitted in some situations in the west under a permit system.  Hunting and fishing are permitted in accordance with state laws.  Primitive camping, horseback riding, and hiking are allowed.  In some cases, there are limitations on the number of people that can camp as a group and permits may be required.  Wildfires in Wilderness Areas are often allowed to burn until the fire moves beyond the boundaries.

While most of this land is located in the west, 44 states have Wilderness Areas.  The largest Wilderness is the 9 million acre Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska.  In Virginia, 24 areas, most controlled by the U. S. Forest Service, have been established as Wilderness Areas.  Most of these are to the west of the Blue Ridge or on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge.  Most are in the 5000-10,000 acre range.  The largest area of about 10,000 acres is Saint Mary’s Wilderness Area northeast of Lexington, west of Charlottesville and South of I-64.  Most of these areas are remote, isolated and difficult to access, as demonstrated by the difficulty in fighting the 11,000 acre Matts Creek fire last fall.  Visits to these areas are probably not suited for Cub Scouts, inexperienced scouts, and old men like me.  However, the Appalachian Trail crosses several of these areas, such as Hunting Camp Wilderness (8400 acres) in Bland County and Priest Wilderness (5700 acres) in Nelson County.  Detailed info on all of the Virginia areas can be found by simply searching for Wilderness areas in Virginia on the internet.    


While few scouts will actually use Wilderness areas, it shows that a large part of our land owned by the federal government has been set aside for maximum protection of the forest, wildlife, and unique wild places.  Scouts, and the general public, need to be aware of this, and know that it has a cost associated with that preservation, in forms of jobs, lack of access, and federal dollars.  Hopefully, we will be able to pay that cost for a long time to come and continue to preserve land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  

Thanks for visiting NATURE NOTES.  Hope you learn something and pass it on.

Bob Garst

Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.