You are here

111th Congress Did Well When it Comes to National Park Wilderness, But It Could Have Done Better


A review of how the 111th Congress acted on wilderness legislation shows that the National Park System benefited quite nicely, but it could have fared better.

According to Frank Buono, a former National Park Service official who now tracks wilderness issues, "the 111th Congress designated wilderness in more separate park units (6) than in any Congress since 1980 in the Carter Administration."

That said, he notes that "the number of acres designated was dwarfed by the park wilderness in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994."

As, it seems, with any other legislation coming out of Washington these days, the wilderness provisions at times cover more than wilderness issues. For instance, notes Mr. Buono, "(T)he 111th Congress also adopted a provision that is unprecedented in the history of National Park System wilderness. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) inserted a provision into an Interior Appropriations Act to allow the Secretary to permit for a ten-year period a commercial aquaculture operation in an area of designated potential wilderness in Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

"Specifically, Section 124 of the Interior Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (October 30, 2009) authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to renew a permit for a commercial oyster farm in Drakes Bay, an area designated as potential wilderness in 1976, for a ten year period, beginning on November 30, 2012," he notes. "The authorization for the oyster farm in the Drakes Bay Estero was due to expire in 2012. At that point the nonconforming use would have ceased, enabling the NPS to convert the potential wilderness into full wilderness by publication of a Federal Register notice."

Here's a recap of recent congressional action on wilderness issues from Mr. Buono:

Senator Thomas Coburn (R-OK) almost single-handedly blocked any wilderness designation in the ending days of the 110th Congress. In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) placed an omnibus federal lands bill at the top of the Senate calendar in 2009. The 111th Congress hit the ground running on park wilderness, and other public land issues. On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law Public Law 111-11. The law designated wilderness in six areas of the national park system. They are (in alphabetical order):

1. Joshua Tree National Park (California) - Congress designated 36,700 additional acres of wilderness and 43,300 acres of potential wilderness in Joshua Tree. The new wilderness came on lands that were Joshua Tree by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Joshua Tree became the first park in which Congress acted on three separate instances to designate wilderness.

2. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan) - Congress designated 11,740 acres as the Beaver Basin Wilderness in Pictured Rocks.

3. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) - Congress designated approximately 249,339 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness.

4/5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California) - Congress established the John Krebs Wilderness in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park, encompassing 39,740 acres and 130 acres of potential wilderness. Congress also designated 45,186 additional acres of wilderness in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. The John Krebs Wilderness is one of only three NPS wilderness areas where Congress did not make the references in the Wilderness Act to the “Secretary of Agriculture” applicable to the “Secretary of the Interior.” Thus the “special provisions” in the Wilderness Act found at section 4(d) are inoperative in the John Krebs.

6. Zion National Park (Utah) - Congress designated 124,406 acres of Zion as wilderness. Zion is one of the three NPS wilderness areas where Congress did not make the references in the Wilderness Act to the “Secretary of Agriculture” applicable to the “Secretary of the Interior.” Thus, the “special provisions” in the Wilderness Act found at section 4(d) are inoperative at Zion.

The 111th Congress designated wilderness (including potential wilderness) within the National Park System of approximately 550,000 acres.

While the additions certainly are welcome, the list of parks that have no officially designated wilderness is not short and, in some cases, quite surprising. For instance, neither Yellowstone nor Glacier have officially designated wilderness. Nor do Canyonlands, Voyageurs, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend, Grand Teton, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, or Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

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."

How important are the designations? In places such as Glacier or Yellowstone probably not overly so, as the rough and rugged backcountry of these places is managed for their wilderness qualities and not likely to be intruded upon by roads or structures. At the same time, lacking official wilderness designations, these landscapes could still be eyed for communication towers or mountain bike trails, Park Service officials have noted.

Featured Article



Even if the language meant opening trails to MTB, it was still in the context of seeing bicycles as a threat (apparently almost as dangerous as cell towers). Looks like a clear anti bike bias to me.

I tend to believe that the language of "mountain bike trails" meant multi-use trails that would be open to mountain bikes. Unpaved trails open to bicycles are still relatively rare in NPS areas, even without wilderness status. Why get hung up over a short phrase that doesn't explain the whole context?


Multi use trails are the answer, no disagreement here.

Sorry, Zeb, must have gotten waylaid by this sentence from your comment:

"Cyclists only want access to multi use trails"

That said, I don't think you'll ever see "MTB ONLY trails." If mountain biking opportunities are expanded in the national parks, I'd wager that the trails would also be open to hikers and stock use.


I did not make my point clearly. The comment I quoted implied that the NPS official was worried about "MTB trails", which I took to mean MTB dedicated trails, hence my comment about the park not having MTB ONLY trails. I understand that the NPS has quite a few (but definitely not enough) multi use trails.

Point Reyes NS has several multi-use trails open to bicycles. There are even three backcountry campgrounds that could be accessed via bicycle.

The trails open to bikes are in dotted red:

Oh, almost forgot. At New River Gorge National River they're seeking comments on a plan to develop two “stacked loop” single-track trail systems that would blend beginner, intermediate, and expert loops systems together.

Zeb, there's multi-use biking/hiking trails in Mammoth Cave National Park, Whiskeytown NRA has some great single-track, one of our new sponsors, Holiday River Expeditions, offers a mountain bike trip in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, there's a 2.5-mile-long hiking/biking trail at Saguaro National Park, and I know the folks at Big Bend NP have been trying to approve a mountain bike trail.

These are just off the top of my head. I'd venture there are other opportunities out there.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments