What is a Wilderness Area?

Defining Wilderness

In the end, dedicated, inspired people empowered by effective legislation will ensure that the spirit and services of wilderness will thrive and permeate our society, preserving a world that we are proud to hand over to those who come after us. Vance G. Martin and Ian C. Player, Forward, A Handbook on International Wilderness Law and Policy

Defining “wilderness” is sometimes challenging because the word has many different usages: it is sometimes used very loosely or metaphorically in casual conversation, and sometimes very precisely, for example as a biological descriptor, or as a protected area classification in land use statutes. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the term “wilderness” refers to a set of qualities, such as wildness, intactness, and remoteness, all of which are to some degree contextual and subject to interpretation.

Despite its many subjective values, the word wilderness is not so elusive that it defies definition. Broadly speaking, The WILD Foundation defines wilderness areas as: The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.

A wilderness area can have two dimensions:

  • A place that is mostly biologically intact; and,
  • A place that is legally protected so that it remains wild, and free of industrial infrastructure, and open to traditional indigenous use, or low impact recreation.

A wilderness area is not necessarily a place that is biologically “pristine”. Very few places on earth are not in some way impacted by humans. Rather, the key is that a wilderness area be mainly biologically intact: evidence of minor human impact, or indications of historical human activity does not disqualify an area from being considered wilderness. Nor must a wilderness area be free of human habitation: many indigenous populations live in wild areas around the world, often playing a key role in keeping wilderness intact and free of development.

The essence of a wilderness area is that it is a place where humans can maintain a relationship with wild nature. Whether that relationship is characterized by recreational use or traditional, indigenous use does not matter, so long as the relationship is predicated on a fundamental respect for – and appreciation of – wild nature.

Wilderness areas are protected for a broad range of biological, social, economic, spiritual and recreational benefits – they often also have powerful iconic value, holding great significance as spectacular, awe inspiring places.


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