Debunking The Myths Surrounding U.S. Wilderness


Ever since the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964, it has been subject to misconceptions and innuendo heaped upon it by those who disagree with its purpose of permanently protecting areas of public land in a wild, untrammeled state.

Many of these “wilderness myths” persist today, and not surprisingly, those perpetuating these fallacies are typically connected with extractive industries such as timber corporations or oil and gas companies, who have only their own selfish economic interests at heart. Here are few of the most common ones, followed by the real story:

Myth: Wilderness “locks up” commercial forestland, hurting local and regional economies by preventing timber harvest and mining.

Reality: Actually, wilderness preservation is a negligible factor in the availability and production of timber in the U.S. and in the southern Appalachians. Nationally, less than 5% of our total timber supply comes from national forests; in this six-state region, only 2% of wood comes from Forest Service land. Further, only 7.6% of the 4.5 million acres of national forest in our region is designated wilderness, which means the vast majority of Forest Service land remains open to logging, road-building, and mining under federal law. Logging jobs have declined throughout the region due not to wilderness, but to mechanization and foreign competition.

Jobs and income related to the enjoyment of unspoiled forest lands, though, are on the rise. Overall, eastern wilderness produces about $44 worth of recreation per acre per year, according to a recent study, supporting fishing guides, outfitters, and lodging places in local communities. Wilderness also helps local and regional economies by protecting watersheds from sediment pollution (which reduces water treatment costs), keeping topsoils intact, providing flood control, increasing the value of adjacent real estate, and attracting well-paid workers and retirees with its high quality of life. Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to lose millions each year subsidizing timber harvest on public lands by private timber companies — $126 million in 1998, by the Forest Service’s own estimate.

Myth: Only pure, pristine, and virgin lands over 5,000 acres in size qualify for wilderness designation.

Reality: The Wilderness Act carefully defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantialy unnoticeable.” Over the years, the U.S. Forest Service has interpreted this to mean that only “virgin” lands could be wilderness, but this purity policy was repudiated by Congress in the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975, which made clear that land that was once cut over or otherwise altered by humans may be eligible for wilderness designation. In fact, that law designated several wildernesses in areas that had been heavily logged in the past. As for the 5,000 acre “rule,” the Wilderness Act explicitly allows for areas less than that when they are of “sufficient size as to make practicable their preservation and use in an unimpaired condition.” The silliness of both the Forest Service’s purity policy and the supposed 5,000 acre minimum size are obvious in Tennessee’s Gee Creek Wilderness, which Congress created in 1975. Gee Creek is only 2,493 acres and was the site of a quartzite ore mine in the early 1900s. There is a 7-acre island wilderness in Florida. No matter what the Forest Service or its industry buddies say, only Congress determines what qualifies as wilderness.

Myth: Wilderness designation allows only young, healthy backpackers to enjoy these areas, restricting the elderly and disabled.

Reality: One of the most important purposes of wilderness is to provide people with a broad array of outdoor recreational experiences. These include hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, horseback riding, mountaineering and rock climbing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, wildlife viewing, nature photography, canoeing, and kayaking. The only exception to these uses is in national park wildernesses, where hunting is prohibited only because of the underlying park status. In fact, wilderness areas on national forest lands provide some of the best fishing and hunting opportunities in our region, as evidenced by the bear and boar hunters who flock to the Slickrock-Citico Wildernesses on the NC/TN border each fall.

Senior citizens and people with disabilities regularly enjoy visits to wilderness areas. In a 1992 report to Congress, Wilderness Inquiry, which specializes in wilderness trips for those with disabilities, wrote, “A significant majority of persons with disabilities surveyed very much enjoy [wilderness areas] and 76% do not believe that restrictions to mechanized use stated by the Wilderness Act diminish their ability to enjoy the wilderness.” Besides, over 90% of the lower 48 states is currently accessible to motorized vehicles, and thus available for use by people of all ages and abilities. Leaving 10% in its natural state, for the benefit of wildlife and people who enjoy the backcountry, is not asking too much.

Myth: Wilderness prevents the Forest Service or Park Service from fighting forest fires or insect outbreaks, dealing with storm damage to trails, and responding to emergencies with motorized equipment.

Reality: While the Wilderness Act prohibits the general use of motorized equipment or vehicles in wilderness, the law clearly allows for their use by managing agencies for search and rescue, firefighting, and other circumstances where they are found to be the minimum tool necessary for the administration of the area. For example, helicopters are routinely used to evacuate injured hikers from wilderness areas, and chainsaws can be allowed to clear massive blowdowns of trees across trails. One corollary to this myth is that wilderness areas are more susceptible to fires and insect outbreak because they are not “managed” in the traditional, extractive sense (i.e. logged.) But the Forest Service’s own research has shown this to be false. In fact, studies have shown that opening up a forest with logging and roads actually increases the risk of fire, by allowing more sunlight and wind to penetrate the forest interior, drying out moist understories, creating flammable piles of limbs and slash, and permitting more “starts” from careless humans and spark-throwing machines. A forest weakened by heavy logging (which compacts soil, damages residual trees, removes soil nutrients, and simplifies forest structure by plucking out the best trees and favoring a few select species) also is more susceptible to insect infestation than one that retains its health and diversity under natural conditions.

Myth: Wilderness erodes private property rights.

Reality: Only federally owned lands may be designated as wilderness. Private property inside designated wilderness areas — known as “inholdings” — can be acquired by the government only if the owner agrees to sell, unless the acquisition is specifically authorized by Congress. Private land may be surrounded by wilderness, but wilderness rules (such as prohibitions on logging and road construction) do not apply to the private inholding. Under law, inholding owners must be assured “adequate access” to their properties within wilderness.

For more information about the Wilderness Act, please visit the site This article was adapted from the Society’s “Wilderness Act Handbook,” edited by Jay Watson and Ben Beach.


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