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Wilderness – Five Decades of Preservation

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Paul J. Culhane

The Wilderness Act of 1964 proclaims,

“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 its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The irony in this passage is that there are many areas, in which the ecology appears quite natural without any detectable evidence of human trammeling. The United States, and many other countries, have established national parks. There is even a bona fide project – Chicago Wilderness – that celebrates small areas that have been restored to their native ecological communities. The Wilderness Act created an official designation in public law –an area that is permanently preserved in its natural state, not just for recreational use, not for optimized mix of economic benefits, but in its own right as wild nature.

wilderness preservationThe public policy issue that the Wilderness Act sought to solve is rooted in the differences in philosophy among the four agencies managing the U.S. public lands systems. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manage the largest acreage of federal public lands, 193 million and 247.3 million acres, respectively, and both agencies’ missions foster “multiple uses” by timber, livestock, minerals, recreation and other businesses, constrained to maintain long-term sustainability. The beginning of the preservation systems dates back  to 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park, with the National Park Service established in 1916. But the National Park Service had an occasionally conflicting dual mission of preserving natural areas and fostering recreation. Yellowstone, for example, was originally marketed as a destination for transcontinental railroad passengers. The fourth area, the wildlife refuges, established in 1903-09 under President Theodore Roosevelt, has an indirect preservation mission. The agency responsible for managing these, the Fish & Wildlife Service, was established in 1939.

The founders of the concept of “designated wilderness” were naturalists from two of these agencies. In 1935, Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhart of the Forest Service and Robert Yard of the Park Service founded the Wilderness Society to advocate for preserving some of the remaining natural areas from roads and the other machinery that were part of America’s industrial society. Marshall, Leopold and Carhart persuaded the Forest Service to set aside national forest lands, first as “primitive” areas, and then in 1939 as “wilderness” areas. Such preservation was not inconsistent with the forest service policy into the 1940s, which supported protecting lands from forest fires but not competing with timber from private forest lands.

However, with the depletion of private forest stock and rising timber demand from the postwar housing boom in the 1950s, preservation groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club knew the Forest Service would increase timber sales and feared wilderness protection could be withdrawn from the Service’s administrative responsibilities.

Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society persuaded Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey to introduce the first wilderness bill in 1956. The Forest Service opposed this bill, wishing to preserve its administrative flexibility and viewing wilderness as “dominant use” antithetical to its “multiple use” management philosophy.

After eight years of intensive lobbying, the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club prevailed and the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed. The Act created outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation, and at least 5,000 acres of “sufficient size” to make preservation practical. The Act designated 9.1 million acres of 54 existing “wilderness” and “wild” areas, plus the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Humphrey’s home state, as wilderness.

The Wilderness Act also directed the Forest Service to review its 34 “primitive” areas for Wilderness designation, and mandated similar reviews by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service resisted more statutory wilderness designations, and only seven more areas were designated during the remainder of the 1960s. Then, in Parker v. U.S. (October 1971), the Forest Service was enjoined from taking any action in roadless areas that would preclude subsequent wilderness designation.

Between 1972 and 1974, the Forest Service conducted a massive and bitterly contested Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE I). There were public hearings on almost all national forests and a major environment statement that considered the future designation of 1,448 roadless areas totaling 55.9 million acres. The Forest Service recommended only 274 areas or 12.3 million acres, as “wilderness study areas.”

Preservation groups argued many qualifying “de facto wilderness” areas, particularly in the East, had been left off the list; while the timber industry, often joined by local governments, opposed taking large areas out of the timber sales program. After the passage of major bills designating wilderness areas in the East (which were often smaller than the Wilderness Act’s 5,000-acre criterion) and “endangered” roadless areas, the Forest Service’s Wilderness system had increased to 106 areas totaling 14.7 million acres.

However, conflict continued. There were concerns over the uncertainty caused by piecemeal designation, which led to a second Forest Service roadless review, this time led by the Carter Administration’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture M. Rupert Cutler. He was a former Wilderness Society staffer whose doctoral dissertation examined four wilderness cases, including Parker. The 1978-79 RARE II examined an expanded list of 2,919 areas, but recommended “only” 624 areas, totaling 15.1 million acres for wilderness designation. The problem posed for the Forest Service was that RARE II areas totaled 62 million acres, which was 36 percent of the agency’s total acreage not already designated as Wilderness. Unless these roadless areas were released from their status as potential wilderness designations under the Parker decision, the agency could not plan for uses impinging on roadless areas.

As a result, during the 1980s the Forest Service, interest groups and congressional delegations had strong incentives to bring closure to wilderness study areas. These resolutions were passed in state-by-state statutes designating certain areas as wilderness and releasing other roadless areas for multiple uses. In particularly, in 1984 at the height of the Reagan administration major statutes for six states designated 175 areas totaling 8.2 million acres of wilderness.

While most roadless contests involved the Forest Service, the University of Montana Wilderness Institute’s tables show the national forests contain only a third of U.S. Wilderness acreage. The National Park Service was shifting management emphasis from recreation toward preservation. Many national wildlife refuges in 48 states were deemed too small or developed to qualify. Through 1978, only 3.9 million acres or 19 percent of all wilderness had been designated in the National Park and Wildlife Refuge systems. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which managed almost two-thirds of public lands acreage until 1980, was not even authorized to manage wilderness areas until the passage of its “organic” Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976.

The monumental designations of wilderness occurred with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in 1980. In addition to distributing former BLM lands to the State of Alaska and native corporations, the Alaska Lands Act established new national parks and monuments, forests and wildlife refuges. It designated 57 million acres of wilderness that was 52 percent of the wilderness acreage designated during the first five decades under the Wilderness Act. After 1980, the BLM, after giving huge wilderness tracts to others in Alaska, participated in other preservation debates, but its 8.7 million wilderness acres are only 3.5 percent of its total federal lands and 8 percent of all U.S. wilderness.

By 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Act, the 760 statutory wilderness areas’ total 109,511,039 acres and represent a sixth of the total acreage of the four federal land management agencies. While the Wilderness data are skewed by the huge tracts in Alaska, all four agencies now manage extensive wilderness acreage. As John Hendee and Chad Dawson explain in Wilderness Management, these large holdings pose major problems for – contradictory as it may sound – management of wilderness areas. For example, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, the Midwest’s great backcountry recreation destination designated in the 1964 Act, the Forest Service has placed man-made steel fire grates in campsites and fiberglass commodes to manage canoe-campers’ recreational use. The goal was to minimize impacts on the wilderness resource. By comparison, across the border in the Quetico Provincial Park, fire areas are indicated simply by circles of stones from the site. On the U.S. side, in a statutory wilderness the “works of man” are more recognizable than across the border.


Author: Paul Culhane is associate professor Emeritus at Northern Illinois University.

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