Some would say Isle Royale isn’t wilderness. It lacks bears, it has too many signs of man, and you can’t escape the ringing buoy. But it is. We said so and made it law in 1976. Isle Royale is not the same as any other wilderness, but that’s the way it should be. Every wilderness is unique, with its own reasons to be set aside and never developed. Part of what makes her unique is that she is in Lake Superior. What could be more “wilderness” than being in Lake Superior?

As I pulled my canoe over the rocks, I felt it.

Four hours earlier there was an exhilarating pause as I worked my way along the shores of Isle Royale. To be alone in my canoe, on Lake Superior, stirred something deep inside. At first there was an apprehension of being there, on the big lake, …on Gitche Gumee. But apprehension gave way to confidence as I grew accustomed to the chop and gentle waves. Confidence that was unaware of what would soon test my resolve. The September sky was clear. It was a beautiful day to be paddling. There was a line of clouds, but it seemed too distant for concern as I worked my way into a steady breeze. It felt good to face the gentle challenge of Lake Superior as I watched the shore, measuring forward progress.

Three hours into the paddle I realized my confidence had paid little note of the changing waves and the weather advancing toward me. No longer a distant apparition, the clouds marched in unison, closing across open water, and ruffling the surface to whitecaps. My strokes responded as I pushed more aggressively towards camp. But too soon the clouds were overhead with darkening sky and a doubling of the wind and waves. Headway became difficult, even behind the shelter of a small point. There was no choice but to go ashore. It was time to beach where there was no beach, time to land where rocks were my only choice. It was time to jump into the water and, all alone, wrestle gear to shore.

Wet and cold, but safe on shore, I laughed at the feeling—the feeling of wilderness.

Wilderness colors us with special sounds, smells, thoughts, and memories. Wilderness is personal and important. Wilderness, given the chance, can color us the way it colored those that gave us the Wilderness Act in 1964.

The Culture That Lead to the Wilderness Act

Understanding the context that spawned the act may help us work with it today. What were people thinking about in the 50’s and 60’s. How did they view wild places and nature when the Wilderness Act was written? There were 16 million Americans “home” from WWII, there was a post-war prosperity that drove people to our national parks, there were people that wanted to preserve wilderness before we lost it, and there were others that wanted to develop it for easy access and financial gain.

The Wilderness Act was not born out of a campfire “kum ba yah”. It struggled for life. There were people fearing the loss of homes and jobs if nearby lands became something they could not develop, or log, or mine, and conservationists fought among themselves over methods and goals.

The first link below covers two years in the life of Sigurd Olson. This is intended as an example of the struggles faced by people involved in the Wilderness Act. Each link helps paint the picture of what people wanted to save and why wilderness was important to them.

The Wilderness Act of 1964

Thanks to Aldo Leopold in 1924, the Gila became our first US wilderness, but when we passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, a new torch was lit for wilderness preservation. The whole of the act can be found at the following link. The “Definition of Wilderness” is excerpted from the act for your convenience.

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Applying the Wilderness Act

Now that we have our “Wilderness Act”, what do we do with it. There are four agencies within the federal government that have wilderness areas to manage. These are: NPS (National Park Service), BLM (Bureau of Land Management), USFS (Forest Service), and FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service). Each wilderness area needs to be guided by a management plan that is specific to its own needs.

A Wilderness Management Plan for Isle Royale

In July of 2011, Isle Royale National Park completed her “Final Wilderness and Backcountry Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement”, whose purpose is to serve as:

  1. "A public document that outlines steps for preserving Isle Royale’s wilderness character, natural resources, and cultural resources while also providing for the use and enjoyment of the park’s wilderness and backcountry by current and future generations; and
  2. A management document that will provide accountability, consistency, and continuity for managing Isle Royale’s wilderness and backcountry and this park’s place in the National Park Service’s wilderness management program.”

The complete document is at:

March 27, 2015 update: We have just been informed that the "Final Wilderness and Backcountry Management Plan and Evnironmental Impact Statement" was not actually approved. I am leaving this reference here for now because the document gives a good view of the decision process used by the park service and can give an understanding of what they see as important. A park service representative states that they are working on a plan. I believe the best thing I can do at this time is point you to their statement in the paper they use as a guide to isle Royale National Park.

Page 3 of the 2015 "Greenstone" gives us the following:
"Last winter the National Park Service worked on draft alternatives to be considered in the Cultural Resources Management Plan, and began development of a Wilderness Stewardship Plan that will update and finalize the draft Wilderness and Backcountry Management Plan. The park also started work on a Moose-Wolf-Vegatation Management Plan. These plans will be available online for review and comment. Public comments are a critical part of the planning process, and we look forward to working with you and appreciate your continued interest in the future of Isle Royale National Park. Newsletters, participation opportunities, and other information related to these plans can be found at"

Training for Wilderness Management

How are the people we have put in charge of our wilderness going to manage what we placed in their trust. In 1996 a partnership between Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, and the Wilderness Institute developed their “public wilderness information website”. This is a great place to see how our wilderness managers are instructed to deal with wilderness.

You could spend many good hours on this site (, but I would suggest starting with this link ( where you need to click on “The Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship” to expand, and then click on “Discussion Guide” (a Word document download). Admittedly, the guide is supposed to be used with a video, but the text by itself is very educational, including the following:

“The Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship

  1. Manage wilderness as a whole
  2. Preserve wildness and natural conditions.
  3. Protect wilderness benefits.
  4. Provide and use the minimum necessary.”

Are “Wilderness” and “Intervention” Contradictions?

  • Why was Isle Royale designated a wilderness in 1976, and what does that mean to its future? For a better understanding on this point, see the “Foundation Statements” in the “Isle Royale Purpose & Plans” section of this site.
  • The wolves on Isle Royale are in poor health. Is Isle Royale too small to support a “healthy” wolf population without intervention, and is that OK?
  • The moose population on Isle Royale is in good health. What will happen to moose and ecosystem health without a healthy wolf population, and is that OK?
  • If we decide not to prop up the wolf population, do we need a plan that states what we will do (if anything) about a changing moose population?
  • In light of a rapidly changing environment, what is the future for Isle Royale as a “wilderness”?

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