What is a wilderness area?
The term wilderness, as here used, means a wild, roadless area where those who are so inclined may enjoy primitive modes of travel and subsistence, such as exploration trips by pack-train or canoe.
The first idea is that wilderness is a resource, not only in the physical sense of the raw materials it contains, but also in the sense of a distinctive environment which may, if rightly used, yield certain social values. Such a conception ought not to be difficult, because we have lately learned to think of other forms of land use in the same way. We no longer think of a municipal golf links, for instance, as merely soil and grass.
The second idea is that the value of wilderness varies enormously with location. As with other resources, it is impossible to dissociate value from location. There are wilderness areas in Siberia which are probably very similar in character to parts of our Lake states, but their value to us is negligible, compared with what the value of a similar area in the Lake states would be, just as the value of a golf links would be negligible if located so as to be out of reach of golfers.
The third idea is that wilderness, in the sense of an environment as distinguished from a quantity of physical materials, lies somewhere between the class of non-reproducible resources like minerals, and the reproducible resources like forests. It does not disappear proportionately to use, as minerals do, because we can conceive of a wild area which, if properly administered, could be traveled indefinitely and still be as good as ever. On the other hand, wilderness certainly cannot be built at will, like a city park or a tennis court. If we should tear down improvements already made in order to build a wilderness, not only would the cost be prohibitive, but the result would probably be highly dissatisfying. Neither can a wilderness be grown like timber, because it is something more than trees. The practical point is that if we want wilderness, we must foresee our want and preserve the proper areas against the encroachment of inimical uses.
Fourth, wilderness exists in all degrees, from the little accidental wild spot at the head of a ravine in a Corn Belt woodlot to vast expanses of virgin country–
Where nameless men by nameless rivers wander And in strange valleys die strange deaths alone.
What degree of wilderness then, are we discussing? The answer is, all degrees. Wilderness is a relative condition. As a form of land use it cannot be a rigid entity of unchanging content, exclusive of all other forms. On the contrary, it must be a flexible thing, accommodating itself to other forms and blending with them in that highly localized give-and-take scheme of land-planning which employs the criterion of "highest use." By skilfully adjusting one use to another, the land planner builds a balanced whole without undue sacrifice of any function, and thus attains a maximum net utility of land.
Just as the application of the park idea in civic planning varies in degree from the provision of a public bench on a street corner to the establishment of a municipal forest playground as large as the city itself, so should the application of the wilderness idea vary in degree from the wild, roadless spot of a few acres left in the rougher parts of public forest devoted to timber-growing, to wild, roadless regions approaching in size a whole national forest or a whole national park. For it is not to be supposed that a public wilderness area is a new kind of public land reservation, distinct from public forests and public parks. It is rather a new kind of land-dedication within our system of public forests and parks, to be duly correlated with dedications to the other uses which that system is already obligated to accommodate.
Lastly, to round out our definitions, let us exclude from practical consideration any degree of wilderness so absolute as to forbid reasonable protection. It would be idle to discuss wilderness areas if they are to be left subject to destruction by forest fires, or wide open to abuse. Experience has demostrated, however, that a very modest and unobtrusive framework of trails, telephone line and lookout stations will suffice for protective purposes. Such improvements do not destroy the wild flavor of the area, and are necessary if it is to be kept in usable condition.
Aldo Leopold; 1925