Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is wilderness?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines designated Wilderness as “land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, …which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable…" Wilderness can only be designated by an act of Congress and can be established only on federal lands. These lands are typically managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Fish and Wildlife Service.
What uses are permitted in wilderness?
Hunting, established grazing, fishing, hiking, camping, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, mineral activity on claims established prior to designation, bird watching, horseback riding, cross‐country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, caving, and ecological research are just some of the activities allowed in wilderness.
How is motorized and mechanized access restricted in wilderness?
The Wilderness Act prohibits use of motorized/mechanized equipment and general access by motor vehicles and mechanical transport, such as mountain bikes. However, the law makes exceptions for situations such as search and rescue operations, firefighting to protect adjacent private lands, and insect and disease control. Grazing permittees are allowed to use motorized vehicles to rescue livestock, and the occasional use of motorized equipment is allowed to fix fences and maintain springs and livestock dams. Additionally, private inholders are guaranteed reasonable access to their land.
How is grazing impacted by wilderness designation?
Domestic livestock grazing, where established prior to wilderness designation, is permitted in wilderness. Maintenance of fences, livestock dams, and springs is allowed, along with the occasional use of motorized equipment in accordance with the 1980 Congressional Grazing Guidelines.
Are private property rights adversely impacted by wilderness designation?
No. Wilderness designation will not adversely affect private property. Wilderness designations apply only to federally‐owned lands. If you own property outside the wilderness boundary (even land near or adjacent to the federal wilderness), wilderness designation does not infringe on your ability to use or develop your land. In fact, studies show that property values go up in areas that are near protected federal lands and rivers.

If you own land completely inside the designated wilderness area (often called an “inholding”), management restrictions for wilderness areas do not apply to private land. Additionally, private property owners are assured adequate access to their land, and that could include permission to drive through a portion of the wilderness area to get to their land. The federal government could only acquire an inholding if the owner was a willing seller.

Would the risk of uncontrolled fire, disease, or insects be greater in wilderness?
No. The Wilderness Act allows for flexibility to deal with catastrophic wildfires should they occur. Section 4(d)(1) of the Act states that "such measures may be taken as necessary in the control of fires, insects and diseases" within wilderness. House Report language for the Endangered American Wilderness Act further clarifies that actions to address fire, insect outbreaks, and disease in wilderness areas include, ‘‘the use of motorized equipment, the building of fire roads, fire towers, fire breaks, or fire pre‐suppression facilities where necessary and other techniques for fire control. In short, anything necessary for the protection of public health and safety is clearly permissible.’’ Additionally, by restricting the construction of new roads, wilderness may help prevent human‐caused fires. This is because many wildfires start along roads. In fact, one study concluded that more than half (52%) of human‐caused fires occurred along road edges.
Would wilderness interfere with our ability to stop the spread of invasive species?
While the Wilderness Act does not specifically address the issue, the U.S. Forest Service Manual and Bureau of Land Management regulations both permit measures to control noxious weeds and non‐native invasive plants when they threaten lands outside wilderness or when they are spreading within the wilderness, provided it is possible to affect control without causing serious adverse impacts on wilderness values.
How does wilderness designation impact disabled individuals?
Those with disabilities may use wheelchairs within wilderness. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 reaffirmed that nothing in the Wilderness Act should be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area, although agencies are not required to provide special wheelchair access. A 1992 report by the National Council on Disability found that a “significant majority of persons with disabilities surveyed very much enjoy the [National Wilderness Preservation System] and 76 percent do not believe that the restrictions on mechanized use stated in the Wilderness Act diminish their ability to enjoy wilderness."
What benefits would wilderness designation offer people?
From an ecological standpoint, wilderness can help preserve air quality, watersheds, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, open space, and natural ecological processes. Once an area is designated at wilderness, existing human scars—like old mines and roads—can be mitigated and the landscape restored to its natural character.

From an economic standpoint, wilderness designation benefits adjacent communities. In an increasingly urbanized landscape, farms and ranches depend on open space to serve as a buffer, protecting crops and pastures from encroaching development. Wilderness areas harbor bees and other beneficial insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. Businesses and individuals are increasingly looking to locate to areas that provide significant outdoor recreation opportunities, open space, and scenic vistas.

Does wilderness designation require the federal government to acquire more land?
No. The wilderness process focuses on land which is already federally‐owned, but which lacks full protection against future development.
What are the current threats to proposed wilderness areas?
The increasing migration of people to western states is leading to the development of formerly remote areas in western states. Western states are also experiencing skyrocketing increases in the numbers of motorized recreation vehicles, which taxes local enforcement and search and rescue budgets, as well as fragments habitats and fragile ecosystems. Development and rampant motorized recreation are two of the most prevalent threats to the preservation of our nation’s wild lands. It makes sense to protect special areas now, before more damage occurs, rather than after the fact. In many cases, existing protections are based on administrative regulations, which lack permanence.
How would prohibitions and protections within designated wilderness areas be enforced?
Wilderness designation invariably brings more agency resources to the particular area. Additionally, wilderness legislation often includes authorization for specific enforcement funding. Such funding might be expended on appropriate signage, educational materials, ecological monitoring, and/or additional law enforcement.
Does wilderness designation curtail the public’s opportunity to be involved in wilderness management decisions?
No. While there are certain statutorily‐mandated land use principles the appropriate federal agency must adhere to in managing wilderness areas under its jurisdiction, agency officials are expected to establish management plans for each unique wilderness area. A wilderness management plan is often developed as part of the broader forest management planning process, which has a strong public involvement component. Wilderness planning must also comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which allows for significant public comment.
What are Wild & Scenic Rivers?
The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act is the nation’s primary river conservation tool. Congress passed the Act in 1968 to specifically balance our existing policy of building dams to develop rivers for the water, power, and flood control resources, with a new policy of protecting some free flowing rivers with outstanding natural and cultural values for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.
What does National Wild & Scenic River designation mean?
Wild & Scenic protection explicitly prohibits the federal government from licensing or permitting new hydroelectric dams or major diversions on protected stream segments. The federal government may license new water resource projects upstream or downstream of protected segments as long as the projects do not unreasonably diminish the stream. Public lands within an average quarter mile wide corridor on both sides of the streams are managed to protect their outstanding scenic, recreational, historical/cultural, fish, wildlife, ecological, geological, and hydrological values.
Does Wild & Scenic protection affect private property?
No, because the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act confers no federal authority over private land use or local zoning of private lands. There is no practical impact on private property, except that federal protection typically increases private property values and contributes to the local economy by attracting tourists and recreational visitors.
Can private land be condemned on the Wild & Scenic Rivers?
No, because all of the eligible segments are already more than 90% under public ownership. The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prohibits fee title condemnation of any private lands along protected rivers if 50% or more of the river segment in question is already under public ownership. As a practical matter, condemnation is used by agencies only as a last resort. No private land has been condemned on any wild and scenic river in California.
How does Wild & Scenic protection affect public lands?
Public lands within an average of 1/4 mile on each side of the river are managed to protect the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values. Federal agencies that administer public lands are responsible for the management of designated rivers and are required to develop a plan within three years of designation to guide future management of the protected stream.
What does Wild, Scenic, or Recreational classification mean?
In addition to protecting a river’s free flowing character and outstanding values, federal agencies are also required to manage the public lands along protected segments according to their Wild, Scenic, or Recreational classification. Classification is based on the existing level of development along the river. The following guidelines are used to establish and manage for classification:

  • Wild - These segments are wild, unroaded and undeveloped. Logging, road building, new mining claims, developed campgrounds, and motorized access are generally prohibited on Wild segments. All other activities associated with public lands such as grazing, mining of valid existing claims, hunting and other forms of non-motorized recreation are permitted subject to the protection of outstanding values.
  • Scenic - These segments are generally undeveloped, but may have occasional road crossings and riverside structures that are visually screened from the river. Motorized use on trails may or may not be permitted based on existing use. All other activities normally associated with public lands are permitted, as long as visual quality and outstanding values are protected.
  • Recreational - These segments are generally developed, with parallel roads, bridges and structures. All activities normally associated with public lands may occur provided that the stream’s outstanding values are protected.

Based on the existing level of development and motorized access, the eligible streams identified by the Forest Service are appropriately classified as Wild, Scenic, or Recreational.

Does Wild & Scenic protection affect existing water rights?
No, the state's authority to regulate water rights remains unaffected by designation. There is a federal water right conferred by designation, but it begins at the date of designation and is junior to all other existing rights. To assert this right, the managing federal agency must apply to the appropriate state water rights agency and any decision would follow existing state water rights procedures and established rule of law. To acquire water rights, federal agencies would have to pay fair market value. As a practical matter, federal protection will not affect downstream water projects and are unlikely to affect any upstream water projects.
How does a stream become a Wild & Scenic candidate?
The candidate streams in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties were all determined eligible for Wild & Scenic protection by the Forest Service in the 2005 forest plan updates. Congress may protect rivers outright through legislation or may direct federal agencies that manage public lands to conduct studies and make recommendations concerning designation. The Forest Service and other federal agencies that manage public lands are also required to identify, study, and recommend candidate Wild & Scenic Rivers in the land and resource planning process. To be eligible, a candidate river must be free flowing and possess one or more outstanding values. Once a river is determined eligible, the agency provides interim protection of the river’s free flowing character and outstanding values until Congress acts in response to the agency study.