See P. Brooks, The Pursuit of Wilderness (1971); R. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (3d ed. 1982).
The word, "wilderness", derives from the notion of "wildness"; in other words that which is not controllable by humans. The word's etymology is from the Old English wildeornes, which in turn derives from wildeor meaning wild beast (wild + deor = beast, deer) (The Collins English Dictionary, 2000). From this point of view, it is the wildness of a place that makes it a wilderness. The mere presence or activity of people does not disqualify an area from being "wilderness." Many ecosystems that are, or have been, inhabited or influenced by activities of people may still be considered "wild." This way of looking at wilderness includes areas within which natural processes operate without human interference.
The idea of wilderness having intrinsic value emerged in the Western world in the 1800s. British artists John Constable and JMW Turner turned their attention to capturing the beauty of the natural world in their paintings. Prior to that paintings had been primarily of religious scenes or of human beings. William Wordsworth’s poetry described the wonder of the natural world, which had formerly been viewed as a threatening place. Increasingly the valuing of nature became an aspect of Western culture.
Wilderness was traditionally viewed as being a place to fear and avoid. It was the place where monsters and the unknown existed. Over the course of the 19th century wilderness became to be viewed not as a place to fear but a place to enjoy and protect, hence came the conservation movement in the latter half of the 19th century. Rivers were rafted and mountains were climbed solely for the sake of recreation, not to determine their geographical contexture. This was a profound shift in wilderness thought. It reached a pinnacle in the US in the 1960s with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, that allowed for parts of U.S. National Forests to be designated as "wilderness preserves."
The 21st century has seen another slight shift in wilderness thought and theory. It is now understood that simply drawing lines around a piece of land and declaring it a wilderness does not necessarily make it a wilderness. All landscapes are intricately connected and what happens outside a wilderness certainly affects what happens inside it. For example, pollution from Los Angeles and the California Central Valley smog up Kern Canyon and Sequoia National Park. The national park has miles of "wilderness" but the air is filled with pollution from the valley. This then brings us to the paradox of what a wilderness really is, which is precisely the issue in 21st century wilderness thought.
Cronon also believes the passion to save wilderness "poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism" and writes that it allows people to "give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead....to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization" but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness,"
Michael Pollan has argued that the wilderness ethic leads people to dismiss areas whose wildness is less than absolute. In his book Second Nature, Pollan writes that "once a landscape is no longer 'virgin' it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. Another challenge to the conventional notion of wilderness comes from Robert Winkler in his book, Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness. “On walks in the unpeopled parts of the suburbs," Winkler writes, "I’ve witnessed the same wild creatures, struggles for survival, and natural beauty that we associate with true wilderness.”
Early in the 19th century, Wordsworth and other romanticists in the U.K., concerned about "the excesses of industrialization and urbanization," called for a return to natural environments. This movement achieved some gains in protecting sensitive ecosystems, but a more successful form of environmentalism emerged in Germany by the mid 19th century. “Scientific Conservation,” as it was called, advocated "the efficient utilization of natural resources through the application of science and technology." Concepts of forest management based on the German approach were applied in other parts of the world, but with varying degrees of success.
By the latter 19th century it had become clear that in many countries wild areas had either disappeared or were in danger of disappearing. This realisation gave rise to the conservation movement in the USA, partly through the efforts of writers and activists such as John Burroughs and John Muir, and politicians such as U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt.
The first National Park was Yellowstone, established in 1872. The creation of this and other parks showed a growing appreciation of wild nature, but also an economic reality. The railways wanted to entice people to travel west. The world's second national park, the Royal National Park, was established in 1879, just 25 km to the south of Sydney, Australia.
This U.S. concept of national parks soon caught on in Canada, which created Banff National Park in the 1880s, at the same time as the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway was being built. Parks such as Banff and Yellowstone gained favor as the railroads advertised travel to "the great wild spaces" of North America. When outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt became president of the United States, he began to enlarge the U.S. National Parks system, and established the National Forest system.
By the 1920s, travel across North America by train to experience the "wilderness" (often viewing it only through windows) had become wildly popular. This led to the commercialization of some of Canada's National Parks with the building of great hotels such as the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise.
The idea of protecting nature for nature's sake began to gain more recognition in the 1930s with American writers like Aldo Leopold, calling for a "land ethic" and urging wilderness protection. It had become increasingly clear that wild spaces were disappearing rapidly and that decisive action was needed to save them.
Global conservation became an issue at the time of the dissolution of the British Empire in Africa in the late 1940s. The British established great wildlife preserves there. As before, this interest in conservation had an economic motive: in this case, big game hunting. Nevertheless, this led to growing recognition in the 1950s and the early 1960s of the need to protect large spaces for wildlife conservation worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), founded in 1961, grew to be one of the largest conservation organizations in the world.
Preservation again came to the fore in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, in 1962 which was the genesis of the modern environmental movement. Major environmental groups such as the Sierra Club shifted from protesting to working with politicians to influence environmental policy.
Nevertheless, initiatives for wilderness conservation continue to increase. There are a growing number of projects to protect tropical rainforests through conservation initiatives. There are also large-scale projects to conserve wilderness regions, such as Canada's Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. The Framework calls for conservation of fifty percent of the 6,000,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in Canada's north. In addition to the World Wildlife Fund, organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, The Wilderness Society (United States), The WILD Foundation and many others are active in such conservation efforts.
The United States was the first country to officially designate land as "wilderness" through the Wilderness Act of 1964. Wilderness designation helps preserve the natural state of the land and protect flora and fauna by prohibiting do and providing for non-motorized recreation. The first wilderness refuge designation was for the Great Swamp in New Jersey. Properties in the swamp had been acquired by residents of the area and they the important natural resource donated it to the federal government as a park for perpetual protection. Today the refuge amounts to 7,600 acres (almost 12 square miles) that are within thirty miles of Manhattan.
Wilderness designations are granted by an Act of Congress for Federal land that retains a "primeval character" and that has no human habitation or development. Approximately 100 million acres (400,000 km²) are designated as wilderness in the United States. This accounts for 4.71% of the total land of the country; however, 54% of wilderness is in Alaska, although recreation and development in Alaskan wilderness is often less restrictive, and only 2.58% of the lower continental United States is designated as wilderness.
The Wilderness Task Force within the World Commission on Protected Areas (WTF/WCPA) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) plays a critical role in defining legal and management guidelines for wilderness at the international level and is also a clearing-house for information on wilderness issues. The IUCN Protected Areas Classification System, defines wilderness as “A large area of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition (Category 1b).” The WILD Foundation founded the WTF/WCPA in 2002 and remains co-chair.
The Wildlife Conservation Society generated a human footprint using a number of indicators, the absence of which indicate wildness: human population density, human access via roads and rivers, human infrastructure for agriculture and settlements and the presence of industrial power (lights visible from space). The society estimates that 26 percent of the earth's land mass falls into the category of "Last of the wild." The wildest regions of the world include the tundra, the taiga, the Amazonian rain forest, the Tibetan Plateau, the Australian outback and deserts such as the Sahara, and the Gobi.
It should be noted that the percentage of land area designated "wilderness" does not reflect "quality" of remaining wilderness, part of which is barren areas with low biodiversity. Of the last natural wilderness areas, the taiga — which is mostly wilderness — represents 11 percent of the total land mass in the Northern Hemisphere. Tropical rainforest represent a further 7 percent of the world's land base. Estimates of the earth's remaining wilderness underscore the rate at which these lands are being developed, with dramatic declines in biodiversity as a consequence.