There is a false sense of security in the National Park System surrounding officially designated wilderness. And political actions, or, rather, inaction, demonstrates why there should be concern for the long-term fate of lands with wilderness qualities.
It is true that the National Park Service manages these lands as de facto wilderness. But there's no assurance that sometime down the road decisions couldn't be made to cut roads into them or build lodges or other facilities within these areas. That's particularly true with current efforts to exempt the Border Patrol from adhering to the Endangered Species Act, The Wilderness Act, and other environmental laws.
Why, if there wasn't an inkling of thought being placed on opening up these lands in some fashion, isn't legislation being introduced by the congressional delegations from Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and other Western states to designate wilderness in the units of the National Park System that lie within their states?
There is an effort under way in Congress to designate more than 32,500 acres at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as wilderness. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has approved the legislation, which now awaits full Senate action. A companion measure in the House of Representatives has received a hearing before the House of Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wasington, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, says he's open to more wilderness designations, but not many more.
"Let me be clear, there are lands that should be managed as wilderness, and, in my view, most of those lands have already been designated. However, this hearing today demonstrates that (Subcommittee) Chairman (Rob) Bishop and I are open to the possibility of appropriately designating new Wilderness areas," Rep. Hastings said in late October after the subcommittee took testimony on a range of wilderness measures, including the Sleeping Bear Dunes proposal.
"Decisions on wilderness designations should be made on a case-by-case basis, be done in accordance with the Wilderness Act, be informed by broad local input so as to enjoy wide local support, and include a review of the potential designation’s impact on the public’s access, limitations on recreation, and effect on local economies and job creation activities," added Rep. Hastings.
But at a time when urban growth and development are lapping over more and more of the country, the need to preserve primitive wilderness is more vital today than it was a century ago due to the diminishing acreage available for such designation. Pure wilderness, where the impact of humans is scarce or non-existant, can be humbling. Not only does it capture the primeval appearance of nature, but it can both test and revive, and even conquer for those who enter it unprepared, the human spirit.
"I think it just needs to be brought to the attention of a public who does not have any idea," says John Miles, a professor at Western Washington University who back in 2009 published a book, Wilderness In National Parks, Playground or Preserve, looking at the issue of wilderness in the park system. "The wilderness movement organizations haven't made it a priority. They've been primarily focused on areas like the Owyhee and the national forest issues. Generally, people seem to think that park wilderness is redundant. Even people in the wilderness movement. So it's hard to get people excited about it."
Glacier National Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright often includes wilderness designation for Glacier in his conversations with Montanans.
"I think that the reality is that when it comes to wilderness, I think there's some interest on the part of our (congressional) delegation, but I think the focus is on areas that are more threatened," the superintendent said. "And I think that the difficulty in moving forward on any designation for Glacier is that it's already a national park, it has a high level of protection, so I think for the delegation, a lot of the citizens in the state of Montana, the environmental community, I think everybody recognizes that Glacier needs to be protected. But it's not perceived as being threatened like, say, areas on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land.
"So, the long answer to your question is no. The idea of formally designating Glacier as wilderness is not moving anywhere fast."
Earlier this month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held a news conference to promote 18 sites across the country that he believes should be designated as wilderness. None of the areas was within a national park, and Interior staff would not say why that was. The Wilderness Society applauded the secretary's announcement, though President William Meadows said it was "only the beginning" of areas around the country deserving of such protection.
Professor Miles sees many areas across the park system as strong candidates for wilderness protection.
"I think they're huge, not only in the sense that there are potentials for wilderness in areas like Glacier and Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, but Alaska," he said. "There's a lot of park land in Alaska that was recommended for designation way back in the 1980s, which is not wilderness. It's still sitting out there in its current status, which is less than it should be in my opinion."
While the Park Service manages these acres as wilderness, that's nice, says the professor, but not necessarily long-lasting.
"What's to say that they might change that position? A few years ago I got a call from Wes Henry, who at the time was the wilderness guy in Washington, D.C., for the Park Service, and he said, 'You know, John, what's the source of the Park Service's decision to manage wilderness study areas and such as wilderness until the decision is made?'
"I was surprised to hear that from the Park Service, they didn't even know it," continued Professor Miles. "It was a decision that was made by the leadership for the Park Service at the time that all of this stuff got hung up (back in the 1980s). This was during the Bush administration, and that question had come to him from Congress, who at the time was thinking, 'Well, gee, maybe this is the opportunity to do something about that, and reduce this kind of protection, who said we should manage it as wilderness?'
"So that's the thing as far as I'm concerned. Right now things are fine as long as the Park Service hews to that line, but what if next year the Republicans, heaven forbid, get control of everything? What might happen then? That's the issue as far as I'm concerned. In the long term, the maximum degree of protection we can provide is what we should aim for."