Is the National Park Service adding clarity, or confusion, about how it should be managing wilderness via revisions to its wilderness stewardship guidelines? Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility believes the agency is not only confusing matters, but lessening wilderness protections.
The non-profit organization claims the Park Service's proposed revisions to Director's Order 41, Wilderness Stewardship, does anything but clarify how officially designated wilderness, recommended wilderness, or proposed wilderness within the National Park System should be managed.
Among the group's complaints:
* While officially designated wilderness is to be left "untrammeled" by humans, DO41 would allow climbers to affix permanent anchors in climbing areas under select instances;
* It would allow the corridors of unpaved roads that run along the edges of official wilderness or proposed wilderness to balloon from the current allowance of 30 feet on either side of a road's center-line to 100 feet;
* The Director's Order is critically vague in addressing Native American rights to access wilderness areas. While PEER has no issue with allowing tribes access to wilderness areas for the purpose of sacred or religious practices, it points out that the proposed wording states "Native Americans may continue religious ceremonies and other practices as provided for in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” (emphasis added)."
"This added language may be construed to go beyond the Management Policies and the law," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a letter to the Park Service. "What, in particular, are the 'other practices' that the DO has in mind? Do they include operation of motor vehicles, use of mechanized equipment, landing of aircraft? The proposed DO should explicitly describe what exactly it purports to authorize – if anything."
Some of the changes proposed by the Park Service through the revisions to the Director's Order cannot simply be made through an updated Director's Order, maintains PEER. "Any change of such magnitude requires formal rulemaking, including public comment and administrative review," the group said.
Rather than providing clarity in how the Park Service will manage wilderness areas and areas proposed or recommended for wilderness designation, the Director's Order revision muddies the waters, contends Mr. Ruch.
“Many of these provisions are written as if the Park Service did not even realize it was opening a new can of worms with each step,” he said in a prepared statement. “As an example, this proposal recommends public involvement in the wilderness eligibility process, yet the Park Service just stripped wilderness eligibility from 40,000 acres in Big Cypress National Preserve without a scrap of public involvement.”
Elsewhere in its release PEER noted that the Park Service "has a love-hate relationship with wilderness."
"For example, the agency for decades has failed to forward wilderness proposals for several major parks to the Interior Secretary or President for recommendation to Congress, conduct wilderness eligibility assessments for many parks, as mandated by NPS policies since 2001, prepare wilderness management plans, or take other steps necessary to properly administer and protect wilderness resources," the organization noted.
“The National Park Service has a staggering backlog of work which, if completed, would increase the wilderness footprint within the park system by more than half – yet this agenda receives no attention,” said Mr. Ruch. “This muddled Director’s Order reflects misplaced priorities and an institutional cluelessness. We urge the agency to retract this plan and concentrate on meaningful steps to meet its wilderness mandate.”