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Wilderness Designations And National Parks Don't Cross Paths Often Enough


As breathtaking as Glacier National Park's landscape is, not a single acre is protected as official wildneress. NPT file photo.

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. -- President Lyndon Johnson.

"There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness. In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a pyschic neccesity. The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books...To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action."
— Robert Marshall, co-founder, The Wilderness Society

"Without wilderness, we will eventually lose the capacity to understand America. Our drive, our ruggedness, our unquenchable optimism and zeal and elan go back to the challenges of the untrammeled wilderness. Britain won its wars on the playing fields of Eton. America developed its mettle at the muddy gaps of the Cumberlands, in the swift rapids of its rivers, on the limitless reaches of its western plains, in the silent vastness of primeval forests, and in the blizzard-ridden passes of the Rockies and Coast ranges. If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was and what it might, with understanding and loving husbandry, yet become. These are islands in time — with nothing to date them on the calendar of mankind. In these areas it is as though a person were looking backward into the ages and forward untold years. Here are bits of eternity, which have a preciousness beyond all accounting."
— Harvey Broome, co-founder, The Wilderness Society

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.

“What we’ve tried to do this year is just kind of 'daylight' that work that’s been done in the past so that the administration and Congress can have a look at it," he said.

The irony, if you will, 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, he said.

“There will be proposals, whether it be for mountain bike trails, or communication sites, or the military will come forward with the need for another testing range, so 'forever' is an interesting concept," he said, referring to the fact that once wilderness is designated, it is to remain so forever. "When you go back to the dialog, back in the late '50s and early '60s, it was all about not trusting the administrative designations, that there was a perceived need for law, congressional action. And now we hear the same thing.

"... You just take a look at the last eight years and you get some interesting things being proposed, either through policy or emphasis through a particular administration that you begin to wonder if an administration designation is enough? This is a good example of it, where the last administration was very supportive of mountain biking. I don’t know where this administration is.”

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."

There are big, contentious wilderness issues out there. The Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2009 would touch some 9 million acres in Utah. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would designate some 24 million acres in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington. Various proposals are in play in Colorado. There's an effort to create more wilderness in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

Until a majority in Congress gets behind these various proposals, they'll go nowhere.


Since someone revisited this article with a new comment, perhaps I can clear up a few things I discovered after my initial posts to this comment section.

My latest understanding about the majority of "nonconforming uses" in wilderness area are where the land/water has actually been designated "potential wilderness". That dam at Lake Aloha is likely marked off as "potential wilderness" in some map I could request at an Eldorado National Forest office. Originally I thought that Yosemite's High Sierra Camps (a commercial use in designed wilderness) is likely in areas marked as potential wilderness. If there's any previous use that would prevent full wilderness designation, they'll just slap this label until the use stops (and there's not necessarily any timetable).

Also - I read up on BWCA. It was specifically named in the original 1964 Wilderness Act as an area where motorized boating is allowed. I believe they do have limits on the type/power of motors allowed.

I have a huge problem with these massive wilderness designations. I am a snowmobiler and back country snowboarder and we are getting pinched out of every area in California and across the nation. whats particularly annoying is that there is nothing contiguous to ride in California. If I ride Ebbets Pass, I can legally ride to within four miles of the sonora pass riding area but can't transfer over. Instead I have to drive over 100 miles each way with my trailer to access sonora. Further more, I have never, ever seen anyone more than 8 miles out from car access in the winter. I would like to see some designated corridoors, even just a trail, linking these areas so I can legally get from tahoe to mammoth in the south or north to the Shasta area. Frankly, I enjoy wilderness areas in the summer time where I can take off for a week and comfortably travel without motors. I like meeting hiker on trail, its what summer is for. Winter however is for Skiers and Snowboarders and snowmobilers (the reason most people I know bought snowmobiles is for the access they provide to back country skiing/snowboarding). No one else really heads into the mountains, the cross country skiers stick mainly to the flats and I don't see them except for a few miles from the road. Snowmobiles don't require roads and do not impact forest floors or create erosion. I would think most outdoor enthusiasts would rather have the sleds deep in the woods anyway. I'd be happy to see some different provisions provided for winter use. Frankly I think there should be polling stations at national parks where actual users can voice their opinions and those opinions should carry real weight. For alot of people this is an issue explored from the couch or from a desk.

Perhaps not a remant per se, but there are even NPS wilderness areas where the border of the wilderness is right at a paved road. One would be the road to Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. I've got the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map of SEKI, and the road abuts designated wilderness from the park entrance to a couple of miles past Atwell Mill. The wilderness ares seems to end right at a private inholding called Cabin Cove while the road continues to Mineral King.

However - what I see more common in maps are corridors with a non-wilderness buffer zone surrounded by designated wilderness. The main road in Kings Canyon NP seems to be like that.

Thanks, Marshall Dillon. I appreciate your kind words. You're right: you can't have any kind of wheeled contrivance in a federal Wilderness, including a hunter's game cart, a dolly to portage a kayak or canoe (is portage a verb?), or even, in some Wildernesses, a wheelbarrow! The latter prohibition makes life difficult for agency staff. None of these prohibitions makes any sense, of course, and they all stem from overstrict agency readings of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Again, my guess is that the weather stations, oyster hatcheries, and cattle-grazing are allowed because it was already there, previous to the establishment of the Wilderness areas. I'm not saying these things are okay to occur in these areas, but I believe that is the rationale in 99% of the cases. Hell, 1964 was NOT that long ago, and of course many of these areas have been designated much more recently.

imtnbike, I have no desire to either get into or even see you get into another similar argument as you did the other day. I definitely respect what you're standing for, and you and those who agree with you have definitely brought up good points that have made me think. I grew up in Minnesota, and I was surprised as a child (before I understood these things) that you couldn't bike or have any wheeled contraption in the Boundary Waters. I'm not sure if that became a new rule when they became the BWCA Wilderness, or if they were managing it like that before. I do know that in the BWCAW, again, a USDA FS Wilderness Area, you can't even have those single-wheel dolly-type cart thingers for your canoes or kayaks. Gotta carry it all. I could be wrong, as I never hung out in any avid paddler circles, but this seemed to be a fairly well-taken rule. That has a teeny percentage of the impact that a mountain bike would have. I guess my only point, perhaps a bad one, is that it's not like there are people out to get mountain bikers. Policy, around the country, is just against any wheeled contraption. Anyway...take it for what you want. Hopefully it's new information to you and I haven't wasted your time. Good luck in fighting for what you so passionately believe in.

y p w wrote:

In many ways I think the way "wilderness" has been designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act has been haphazard with all sorts of exceptions thrown in. I've seen pictures of Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness in the Lake Tahoe Basin. It's clearly within a wilderness boundary by I've seen photos of it with a big dam and understand that the water is stored there for irrigation purposes. I've personally visited Gilmore Lake with what's definitely a small man-made dam. I've seen maps of several wilderness areas showing narrow corridors in some wilderness areas where existing roads were left in place or large-scale commercial interests or frontcountry campgrounds were left in place within hundreds of feet of designated wilderness.

Marshall Dillon disagreed, replying,

I'm not sure I believe your claims. Wilderness areas are pretty set-in-stone. What I believe you might be seeing in person and on maps is remnants from before the Wilderness area became as such.

In fact y p w is more correct than he may realize. Exceptions to Wilderness ideals are embodied in statutes creating various Wilderness areas and, perhaps more surprising, in the Wilderness Act of 1964 itself. See

It may be that one of the most pernicious permitted operations in federal Wilderness is commercial cattle-grazing. I am always hearing stories about Wilderness areas in which, thanks to agency rules that have misinterpreted the Wilderness Act of 1964, mountain biking is prohibited, and yet these areas are denuded and defiled by agroindustrial cattle husbandry. There are supreme ironies in Wilderness statutes and regulations: mountain biking not allowed, dams, jet boats, weather stations, and low-level military overflights just fine. Not to mention luxury horse and packstock outfitting operations that lug in sedentary people to wine and dine them in remote settings, disturbing the environment and trail integrity in the process.

I would assume, however, that most activities of these sorts occur in USDA Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Wilderness areas, and not in National Park Service-managed Wilderness areas.

Regarding this fine (and shortened) quote:

Our drive, our ruggedness, our unquenchable optimism and zeal and elan go back to the challenges of the untrammeled wilderness. Britain won its wars on the playing fields of Eton. America developed its mettle at the muddy gaps of the Cumberlands, in the swift rapids of its rivers, on the limitless reaches of its western plains, in the silent vastness of primeval forests, and in the blizzard-ridden passes of the Rockies and Coast ranges.

— Harvey Broome, co-founder, The Wilderness Society

Good stuff. And certainly an endorsement of the recreation value of preserving wild places. The "challenges of the untrammeled wilderness" have appealed to David Brower (who placed the first bolt I know of in American climbing history), Teddy Roosevelt (dedicated hunter and environmental leader) and many other early leaders of the Wilderness movement.

So why do we feel the need today to de-emphasize the recreation aspects of Wilderness designations and pretend that it's solely a conservation-minded venture? If the real purpose is to preserve landscapes why would we allow anyone other than an actual field biologist to visit?

Let's recognize that the original intent and spirit of the Wilderness movement is to engender a connection to beautiful places through recreation. To that end, I think more opportunities for low-impact (non-motorized) recreation should be encouraged in Wilderness management strategies.

People bond with the land when they get to experience it through enjoyable recreation activities. That's how the Wilderness push began, and losing touch with that impetus is a bigger threat to the Wilderness movement than, say, a bicycle.

Exactly. Yes. There are exceptions. Especially grandfathering. But often when the grandfathered use will phase out, or is considered so Di Minimis that Congress at that time did not consider it so extensive a violation that Congress should block wilderness designation.

Apparently, Congress did not consider the oyster farm, a commercial business, Di Minimis. Apparently, it was non conforming, and Congress would not look the other way.

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