Wilderness FAQs

What is a Wilderness Area?

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as "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." The Act further defines a wilderness area as "land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,... 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 5,000 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 or historical value."

Does wilderness designation  support multiple use of our national forests?
Yes. The five prime uses designated for national forests are water conservation, wildlife, recreation, grazing and timber. Of these five uses, wilderness serves the first three and accomodates the fourth through a grandfather provision. Only timber harvest is prohibited. The accomodation of multiptle use is well stated in a 1980 Virginia Wilderness Committee article, authored by Ernie Dickerman:

Some people, because commercial logging is prohibited in wilderness, claim that wilderness is "single use" rather than "multiple use" and without looking into the matter further , oppose wilderness. As a matter of fact, wilderness is recognized as one of the multiple uses in the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act. Further, of the principal multiple uses enumerated in that Act, wilderness very effectively serves the conservation of water and soil; provides undisturbed habitat for many species of wildlife; recreation is a prime use; and grazing (also called "forage") may be permitted under the Wilderness Act. While the harvesting of timber is definitely prohibited, it is the living forest-not the clear cut or heavily cut over land-which holds back the water and controls erosion; which purifies air; which provides essential habitat necessary for food, shelter and breeding of specific species of animals and birds; and which is beauty and inspiration for mankind. Wilderness is multiple use.

Are fishing and hunting allowed in wilderness?

Yes. If state and federal law otherwise permit hunting or fishing within a candidate area, the designation of wilderness does not affect its availability for these uses.

Can previously logged areas by designated wilderness?

Yes. Wilderness is defined as an area of federal land "retaining is primeval character and influence...which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." This language was drafted particularly to provide for the preservation of wild land in the East. Thus, lands which have been impacted by man but which are returning to their natural state are eligible for designation. Consequently, evidence of prior timber harvests and dirt roads do not automatically disqualify candidate sites. The key is that the imprint of man's prior work be substantially unnoticeable.

Are motorized vehicles allowed in wilderness areas?

Generally, no. Section 4c of the Act states that except as specifically provided for in the Act, "no use of motorized vehicles, motorized equipment or motor boats, no landing of aircraft, and no other form of mechanical transport" are permitted within a wilderness area. The Act does provide exceptions where the use of aircraft or motor boats was established prior to wilderness designation and further authorizes motorized vehicles as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, and in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons. Generally, however, motorized vehicles and mechanized transportation are prohibited.

Are roads permitted in wilderness areas?

Generally, no. Section 4c states that there shall be "no permanent road within any wilderness area...(and) there shall be no temporary road." Once again, the Act makes a few limited exceptions. Roads may be maintained for the minimum necessary administration of the area for the purposes of the Act, including facilitating measures required in emergencies and for protecting the public health and safety. Roads also are authorized to service private property surrounded by wilderness areas. In general, however, roads are not permitted.

Is there a minimum size for wilderness areas?

No. The Act states that an area be five thousand acres or of sufficient size to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition. There are many congressionally designated wilderness areas of less than 5,000 acres, including five presently in Virginia.

Does wilderness designation respect private land rights?

Yes. Only federal lands can be designated as wilderness areas. In addition, the Act has provisions to ensure that private land, "landlocked" by wilderness sites, remains accessible to use by the owner.

May hiking trails be maintained?

Yes. Existing foot and horse trails may be maintained using traditional tools; however, power tools, like chain saws and weedeaters, may not be used.