Yellowstone. Canyonlands. Voyageurs. Grand Canyon. Great Smoky Mountains. Glacier. Surprising as it is, none of those parks has so much as a single acre of officially designated wilderness.

And those are only the most iconic units of the National Park System that have no official wilderness despite embracing thousands of acres of eligible acreage. Others include Big Bend National Park, Grand Teton Natifonal Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

During the past 35 years, 19 formal proposals calling for wilderness designations in national parks have been sent to Congress, according to Gary Oye, the National Park Service's chief of wilderness stewardship. Another 19 are in various stages of preparation and review, he added.

The irony is that from the start of the National Park Service the agency's leaders intended for parks to preserve wilderness, as John C. Miles makes clear in a new book, Wilderness in National Parks, Playground or Preserve. However, the agency would later oppose The Wilderness Act because it thought Park Service managers, not politicians, could best manage wilderness.

Horace Albright, the agency's second director, "felt this way because he thought the wilderness bill would add nothing to protection in national parks and monuments and because the bill 'would unnecessarily limit the power and authority of the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service over areas that, except for exceedingly small sections, are in wilderness condition,'" writes Mr. Miles.

Of course despite that opposition, Congress passed The Wilderness Act and President Johnson signed it into law on September 3, 1964. Perhaps Mr. Albright's fears have come to fruition, for Congress has become the gatekeeper to official wilderness.

No matter that Yellowstone manages its 2 million acres of wilderness-eligible acres as de facto wilderness, as does Glacier with its 927,550 eligible acres, as does the Grand Canyon with its 1.1 million eligible acres, or any of the other park units that have wilderness-eligible acres. Until Congress signs off on a wilderness bill, and the president signs it into law, those "wilderness-eligible acres" are also eligible for road building and other forms of development.

"Wilderness is like one in six acres of public land right now. One-hundred-and-nine million acres out of about 600 million," said Mr. Oye. "That's a significant amount of land, but it's not every portion of public land. That will be the continual debate that we have in this country, how much is enough, and which lands should be considered for wilderness?"

Much more attention has been placed on gaining wilderness designation for U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands than on Park Service lands because, explains Mr. Oye, there's a widespread perception that Park Service lands already are protected. And yet as debates over communication towers, military test ranges, and even mountain bike access demonstrate, that protection doesn't fully exist until the designation is bestowed by Congress, he said.

Wilderness designations can be contentious issues. Mining interests oppose them because they can put potential reserves out-of-bounds. Developers can't open up roads. And even mountain bikes can't negotiate them because of The Wilderness Act's prohibition against any "form of mechanical transport." Are those prohibitions so onerous, when one considers the relatively small amount of acreage affected by wilderness designations? Here's how the framers of The Wilderness Act explained their intent:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

In his book Mr. Miles points out that such notable 20th Century wilderness proponents as Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall generally agreed with Robert Sterling Yard, the Park Service's first "publicity chief," that wilderness should remain pristine and without roads, but added that "such land would serve a particular recreational approach -- primitive travel on foot or horseback without modern amenities."

But Mr. Miles also notes that, "the struggle over parks and wilderness will continue, and the National Park Service will be in the middle of it. No one can predict how this struggle will turn out, but if there are more wilderness advocates in the mold of (John) Muir, Yard, and (Wilderness Act author Howard) Zahniser in that future in alliance with park people like (early Sequoia National Park Superintendent John Roberts) White, (Park Service biologist E. Lowell) Sumner, (Assistant Park Service Director Theodore) Swem, and (Alaska Regional Director Boyd) Evison, then there will be park wilderness for many generations of Americans to enjoy."

Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at