River of No Return
National Parks, National Forests, and U.S. Wildernesses

Is there a difference between national parks and national forests? Yep. And what are designated U.S. wilderness areas? Although these federally-managed, protected lands have a lot in common, there are important distinctions.  Here’s an overview of what distinguishes our nation’s parks, forests, and wildernesses.

National Parks Poster by J. Hirt for WPA, Library of Congress

National Parks Poster by J. Hirt for WPA, Library of Congress

National Parks: In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act that established Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park. Sequoia and Yosemite followed, both designated as national parks in the year 1890. In 1916, the Organic Act led to the creation of the National Park Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, to protect all designated national park land. The fundamental purpose of National Park Service is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  Hunting, commercial fishing, livestock grazing, mining and logging are all strictly prohibited on national park land.  Today, a total of 84.9 million acres has been designated national park land, approximately 3.6% of all land in the United States. Of the 84.9 million acres in the National Park Service, 55 million acres are located in Alaska.

A few of the 58 National Parks in the United States:
Arcadia, Badlands, Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns, Crater Lake, Death Valley, Denali, Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Basin, Hot Springs, Joshua Tree, Katmai, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Petrified Forest, Redwood, Sequoia, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion

National Forests: In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act allowed the president to designate public land reserves. Fourteen years later, the Transfer Act placed these reserves, which were renamed national forests, under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. The U.S. Forest Service was created within the department specifically to regulate and manage these lands. Similar to national parks, land preservation is one of the primary functions of national forests. However, unlike national parks, these forests and grasslands are open to commercial activities like logging, livestock, as well as recreational activities like camping, hunting, and fishing. Currently, 193 million acres of land is designated national forests, located in 42 states. The first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, once stated that National Forest land is managed “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

U.S. Wildernesses: Wilderness areas were established in response to heightened concern about pollution in the 1950s and 1960s. The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The Act gave a legal definition of the term wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The passage of the Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) to protect the then 9 million acres of federal land officially recognized as U.S. wilderness. Wilderness areas are parts of national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and the public domain.  Today, there are 107.5 million acres of wilderness spanning 44 states and Puerto Rico, accounting for 4.82% of the United States. About half of that total is in the state of Alaska. The largest contiguous U.S. wilderness area is the Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness in Alaska at close to 13 million acres. Broken up by a series of roads into 35 small wilderness areas, Death Valley Wilderness is technically the largest wilderness area outside Alaska. However, at close to 2.4 million acres, Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the largest, roadless protected wilderness area in the lower 48.

Wilderness areas are managed by four federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Unlike national parks, wilderness areas allow regulated hunting. And although wilderness areas prohibit logging, mining, and motorized vehicles, some resource extraction and livestock grazing persists in areas where those activities occurred prior to its wilderness status.

To be eligible for wilderness designation, an area must be at least 5,000 acres large or a roadless island; appear natural with unnoticeable human presence; provide space for recreational activities and solitude; and contain features that are deemed ecologically, scientifically, or historically significant.

  • Lorraine Van De Brook

    That was one of the most beautiful, inspirational and informative programs I’ve seen. I am so happy that it was on PBS so I could watch and enjoy it. Thank you to the lovely couple that filmed and narrated it.

    Living in the wilderness is such a difficult thing to do but the rewards are many. I hope you both enjoy a full and beautiful life together. Thank you!

  • LindaNicole

    We just watched this for the first time and were very troubled that Bjornen was allowed to suffer like that, past the time when they should have gone home, in our opinion. Of course, her spirit would not have wanted that, but a year is only an arbitrary time frame. From what he said, she must have been living in terrible pain; how he could have allowed that to continue for as long as he did, I don’t understand. This project is an evanescent thing, but she is his wife and his treasure. Her health should be his compass, always. He should not have gone on knowing she was in so much pain.

  • Rian

    @LindaNicole: Everyone is different and not everyone will quit easily. It seemed that she refused to quit and he was clearly suffering with her decision and didn’t want to see her in pain. Some people are very determined to live their lives and “not let their disease win”. I agree there is a point where logic stops and you need to rest, but I saw 50 minutes of what was nearly a year of their lives…I can’t claim to understand their decisions on that small window of time with an accuracy.

  • Jeannine

    Dear LindaNicole: We just watched the River of no return on MBPN Nova. So enjoy all their work and this was no exception. Pain is something that we can allow to come through ourselves and go with the flow or let it control us. Apparently, Bjornen made her choices on a daily or minute to minute bases. Often I use to think why do people go through what they do and yet come out on the other side with such joy and accomplishment. Now, for today I see clearly for myself when I do not try to stop the process but instead I embrass every moment it is such an exhilarating experience that it is euphoric at the height of the pain. Metaphorically I can only compare it to child birth. We can have compassion just as the ewe who befriended and protected the injured one from danger yet stood by her allowing her the chance to live a little longer…even though she was in pain she still fought to live and not lay down or give in to the environment. I can only hope that this will help you. I am 75 and it has taken me almost three quarters of a century to get to this point of clearity. I marvel when I see people allowing their dreams to carry them through without questioning the inner child.

  • Vicky Keener

    Thank you for doing this amazing film on wolves. I lived in Idaho and have kept up with how the state is at odds oftentimes with these beautiful creatures. Mr. Muir would be honored to see how you brought back to so many of us the joy and sheer delight nature holds for us all. I too agree it is better to choose an adventure with hardship over no adventure at all. I send to you my gratitude for your selflessness and dedication to the preservation of wilderness and the wonderful creatures who remain.

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