Wilderness as a Protected Area Classification

Wilderness laws and policies give effect to one of humanity’s noblest and most prudent impulses: the desire to leave some parts of the planet to function on their own terms, rather than managing all lands intensively and exclusively for the short-term benefit of the human species, Cyril F. Kormos and Harvey Locke, Introduction, A Handbook on International Wilderness Law and Policy.

The term wilderness is used in a land use context to refer to a particular type of conservation area that is legally protected. In this context, the term still refers to wild areas, but because the term is defined with social and political as well as biological criteria, a wilderness protected area may not always look exactly the same as an area that is described as wilderness from a purely biological standpoint.

Many countries have, or are developing specific legislation to designate wilderness areas. These laws usually share several characteristics:

  • They protect areas that are mainly biological intact, though often make exceptions for somewhat degraded areas that are capable of restoration;
  • They aim to protect the largest areas possible, while recognizing that often protected areas start small but are expanded over time.
  • They restrict infrastructure and extractive use in wilderness areas, in particular roads and pipelines, though sometimes political compromises are necessary to enact a law, and certain uses are permitted under the law.
  • They limit human habitation in wilderness areas, though most wilderness laws explicitly recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to continue to make traditional use of and/or live in wilderness areas.

They encourage recreation in a wilderness area, given that a central purpose of protecting wilderness is to encourage a human relationship with wild nature.
One of the longest standing acts of legislation for wilderness is the US Wilderness Act (1964), which reads:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which:

  1. Generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable;
  2. Has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;
  3. Has at least two thousand hectares (five thousand acres) of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and,
  4. May also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational , scenic or historical value.”

Finland defines wilderness as those places established: “to preserve the wilderness character of the areas, to protect Sami culture and the traditional subsistence of the areas, and to enhance possibilities for multiple use of nature.”

In the United States, livestock are allowed to graze in wilderness areas, a compromise necessary to ensure passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. In Finland resource extraction and infrastructure may be permitted to facilitate indigenous Sami livelihoods, pushing the edge of the generally accepted definition of a wilderness area (though in practice there is very little development in Finland’s wilderness areas).

On an international level, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) protected area classification system provides an international standard for protected area categories and management approaches to maintain the integrity of each category. Within this classification system, IUCN’s Category 1b defines wilderness areas as:”usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.”

As our last wild places come under increasing threat, legally defined wilderness areas are both gaining popularity and significance. In 1990, there were six countries with some form of wilderness legislation or wilderness zoning for protected areas. Today there are nine countries with laws, and at least nine more with wilderness policies or zoning mechanisms, and two more countries with laws pending. Many indigenous groups have adopted wilderness protection policies as well, as have a number of private landowners.

For more information on the different types of protected wilderness areas around the world: