National Park System Would Gain Official Wilderness Under Omnibus Lands Bill

Rocky Mountain National Park would gain nearly 250,000 acres of officially designated wilderness under an omnibus lands bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. NPS photo.

A massive lands bill introduced today by Senator Jeff Bingaman would, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, designate hundreds of thousands of acres of official wilderness across the National Park System.

If you recall, similar legislation died last month as Congress became preoccupied with the nation's financial meltdown.

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 introduced by the Democrat from New Mexico would, if enacted, permanently protect more than 2 million acres of America’s wilderness. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the measure would be voted on by the entire Senate this Sunday.

According to The Wilderness Society, this legislation would provide the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 15 years, and includes 16 wilderness bills from nine states.

Among the national parks that would benefit from this legislation are:

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Beaver Basin Wilderness

This legislation would designate more than 11,000 acres of wilderness within the Pictured Rocks
National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. Pictured Rocks features sandstone cliffs, lovely
beaches, waterfalls, and sand dunes all with the spectacular backdrop of Lake Superior.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness and Indian Peaks Wilderness Expansion Act

Rocky Mountain National Park provides world-class hiking and climbing, and breathtaking
views of the Rocky Mountains, while also supporting the economies of several gateway
communities. This legislation would protect nearly 250,000 acres of wilderness within the
park, finally implementing a recommendation by the National Park Service made in the
early 1970s.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness Act

This bill would designate 90,000 acres of wilderness within Sequoia and Kings Canyon
national parks, and would protect the redwood Mountain Grove, which is the largest stand
of Giant Sequoia trees in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park

California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act

The legislation proposes to designate more than 190,000 acres of wilderness, including
spectacular desert landscapes in Joshua Tree National Park and the rugged slopes of the
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The bill would also designate 31 miles of Wild and
Scenic River, providing new recreation opportunities for southern California

Zion National Park

Washington County Growth and Conservation Act

This legislation would designate more than 235,000 acres of wilderness in and around Zion
National Park in southern Utah. The legislation would also establish two new national
conservation areas and would create several new wild and scenic rivers. Utah’s scenic
red rock country is a land of stark beauty renowned worldwide. This bill would preserve
important elements of this iconic landscape.


Help me out here: why is a wilderness declaration of regions within an existing national park really matter? I understand that declaring other lands as 'wilderness' affords them protection from development, road building, etc., but aren't lands within a park already protected?

I guess I'm asking why this bill is anything more than empty rhetoric in some cases, like the act "designat[ing] 90,000 acres of wilderness within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks", etc.


My travels through the National Park System:

Barky, no, it's not exactly empty rhetoric. While the areas in question have been "managed" as defacto wilderness, that's not the same as being officially designated wilderness. Which means that if someone down the road decided to build a road into or through a portion of the defacto wilderness, or put a backcountry ranger cabin there, or who-knows-what that's currently prohibited in officially designated wilderness, and somehow got NPS approval, they could.

True, it's probably a reach that anything would happen to these defacto wilderness areas, but you never know....

OK, makes sense I suppose. Thanks for that!


My travels through the National Park System:

It may not be such a reach, Kurt. Most of the larger units have a cadre of relatively well paid employees who have a vested interest in building new infrastructure. These range from contracting officer and Trail Foreman to Landscape Architect, Chief of 'Maintenance', and beyond. Many no doubt sincerely see a need, or many needs, but some are careerists looking to fill the eye of their supervisor or congressperson. The regional offices are especially well stocked with this type.

Preoccupation with the economic crisis certainly played a role, but it was still somewhat surprising that Congress failed to pass its now seemingly standard end-of-session omnibus public lands bill. Even with the economic crisis, this probably would have still have passed but for the objections of Senator Coburn of Oklahoma. Sen. Coburn objected to a number of provisions, including the earmarking and overall price tag of some of the projects included, closing off certain Forest Service and BLM Lands to further energy exploration, and concerns regarding both the price tag of the new National Heritage Areas included and the possibility of new National Heritage Area designations interfering with private property rights.

It is interesting to note, however, that both Senator Coburn and environmental groups both objected to at least one aspect of the bill - a plan to spend to transfer land out of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Aleutian Peninsula to eventually facilitate a multi-million dollar road project to replace the existing ferry access to an airport for residents of a small town. (sound familiar? - different town, similar story.)

Paul - If you've ever visited a Park that is largely wilderness, like North Cascades, and compared it to the experience of say visiting Yosemite Valley or the developed areas of Yellowstone, I think you would quickly see the difference. Wilderness designations involve making a tradeoff in favor leaving a place virtually untouched, and against further development of things like tour roads, National Park Lodges, and developed campgrounds that help make National Parks more accessible to broad segments of the American population. When a wilderness is designated, the wild splendor of the place is left almost completely untouched (for example, you can't even put trail signs up in wilderness areas) and provides an unmatched experience for those who go there. On the other hand, it does often mean that fewer people will go there, due to the lack of facilities and the more difficult access.

Limited signage is allowed in designated wilderness areas:
The Wilderness Act of 1964 and Signs

It will be interesting to see how this bill fares so early in the new session; perhaps that will provide a hint at how other park-related actions will fare.

To add to the comment by Sabattis, media reports late last year indicated that this bill didn't come up for a vote due to threats of a filibuster by Senator Coburn of Oklahoma. With other pressing business facing Congress at the end of the session, his threat was sufficient to stall the bill. One would presume he still has the same objections to this bill, and some of that same "pressing business" is still on the table, so stay tuned for developments...

Random Walker - Thanks for the link, I stand correct on that point. In practice, though, even decisions on signage seem to be made on a case-by-case basis, and there certainly are a number of wilderness areas where trailhead signage is only placed at the wilderness area boundary, but further trail markers are not placed within the area itself.

Jim - Not only was there a threat of a fillibuster, but it was acutally made over the summer and the bill failed when Harry Reid could not find the 60 votes needed to override the fillibuster. And while the issues have not changed, the composition of the Senate has - however that may well be contingent on having new Senators from Illinois, New York, Delaware, and Minnesota in place (at least once Biden and Clinton formally resign in those two cases.). As you said, "stay tuned".....

An article in today's Las Vegas Review-Journal provides a hint of the upcoming fight over this bill, led by Senator Coburn. He says:

"The omnibus bill would withdraw millions of acres of public land from energy development, increase government spending by more than $10 billion and add even greater restrictions to federally managed lands."

The Oklahoma lawmaker has added a new twist to his strategy. He:

proposed an amendment that would prevent any new spending until the National Park Service gets caught up with a $1.5 billion repair backlog at high profile parks.

The amendment singles out Lake Mead National Recreation Area, along with the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone National Park, the USS Arizona, Glacier National Park, Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam, and the National Mall in Washington.

The prohibition on "new spending" presumably refers to activities that are included in this bill. Unfortunately, I haven't seen all calls by Coburn to actually provide any funds to help with the NPS backlog, so stalling progress on other provisions until the backlog is corrected is a clever stalling tactic.

Although I agree this bill has many excellent provisions, it's fraught with the same peril as many omnibus bills, which lump a large number of individual bills into one package, and thus become a convenient vehicle for the oft-debated earmarks, such as yet another "road to nowhere." Since the bill is reported to include about 1200 pages, it is hard for anyone to wade through all the text, posing some risk that a ringer or two that even bill supporters will later regret is lurking in the fine print.

Will the bill actually come to a vote on Sunday? When the votes are counted, will there be any hanging chads? It'll be interesting...

Jim, thanks for the update on this measure. Sen. Coburn really is turning into an irritant to some. Though if hindsight is of any help, there more than likely is more than a few servings of pork in this omnibus bill. That said, I'd be surprised if the senator has any luck in derailing this train. There are too many states and politicians to benefit.

While the above story touches on many of the NPS-related items, one that I overlooked (can you blame me, with a 1200-page bill?) is the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. This trail, among other things, would follow the course of the great Ice Floods that flooded central Washington up to 100 times.

As I understand it, and as the Ice Age Floods Institute explains on its web site, this would not exactly be a footpath but rather a travel corridor along which the Park Service would be expected to establish interpretive plaques and kiosks.

If the omnibus bill passes, the Traveler will take a more expansive look at this proposed trail.

It will be interesting if the Omnibus Public Lands Act doesn't pass today - but the bean counters must be pretty confident, as Senator (and Vice-President-Elect) Joe Biden is apparently off to Asia today, according to the Associated Press - although apparently at least three Senators canceled plans to join him on the trip in order to cast their votes. The AP also says that this bill would be the biggest expansion of the National Wilderness System in 25 years (although, I'm guessing that's largely an artifact of the fact these bills had to be consolidated into such a large Omnibus Act.)

While I'd love to be a wilderness supporter, due to incorrect legal interpretation of the Wilderness Act, more wilderness usually equals less Mountain Biking opportunity. So, I'm off to complaining to my state senator... :(

How can such a small percentage of our population, cry so loud about not having enough quiet back-country trails to walk. God made beauty for everyone, not just a handful. And for those who are crying to protect it for your grandkids, Good Luck! The Wilderness Designation will only tighten the security to some of our most beautiful scenic places. Eventually only alowing the healthiest of these hikers to see the view. So, if your grandchild is disabled in some way ( heaven forbid ), they will never see the beauty you have. Is that Fair? Then there is forest and land management, without some form of management and access in these areas, we are setting them up for catestrophic wildfires that will destroy the whole ecosystem they are trying so hard to protect. Think twice before backing a Wilderness Designation . Thanks Senator Coburn for exposing this to the public. I have already emailed my Senators. Lets co-exist, this issue has good points on both sides.

Wilderness is the ultimate gift one generation can give to another. It is much more than just impressive scenery and wild animals. It is literally a working model of what the world was like before modern human civilization substantially altered or destroyed natural systems. Those rare, intact examples of wilderness are living laboratories that can help us understand our own place in nature and give us a foundation to rebuild shattered natural habitat. I would venture to guess that areas under consideration for wilderness designation are places you have never visited and likely never would. There are ample lands open to multiple use, including off-road vehicle access. Why not save what little wilderness is left as a legacy for those who will come after us? I am no longer physically able to access the remote wilderness areas that once enriched my life, but my pleasure comes from knowing that they still exist. Borrowing a title of a book by Bill Brown, they are literally Islands of Hope.