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Why The Delay In Designating Official Wilderness In National Parks?


Glacier National Park is one of a surprising number of national parks without any officially designated wilderness. NPS photo of Hidden Lake.

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.

Among the national parks with no official wilderness areas are Glacier, Yellowstone, Voyageurs, Canyonlands, and Grand Teton.

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."

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Most of the acreage in the "Red" states was designated in the Alaska Lands Act in 1980.  That bill broke the norm of passing park or wilderness legislation only when the local  Members of Congress support the designation. 
That was unusual.  It only came to the Floor of Congress because of an earlier agreement that exchanged the promise of conservation for a method to distribute lands to the State (about 100 million acres) and to Native Corporations (around 40 million acres).  And, in the Alaska Lands Act, although it did set aside lands  for conservation, also made  development  easier outside the Parks, Wildlife Refuges or National Forests.  In some cases, it even made development easier within conservation areas, but particularly National Forests in SE Alaska.  So although a lot of national park land was set aside in that law as wilderness, it was not sponsored by the local Members of Congress, but was the result of other incentives to the State, not for its own sake.
Generally, wilderness in parks is to protect the land from the National Park Service, and the tendency for the NPS to create visitor developments incrementally until the character of the park has changed. 
At one level DStaniford is right that park wilderness would prevent roadways in parks.  I too enjoy drives  through parks and other scenic country.  But I think DStaniford generally is wrong to think wilderness should be prevented to allow more roads.  You do not need to see all remote areas through roads.  There are plenty already.  Parks are rare things.  There are many areas, many very nice scenic areas, that are not within the Nat. Park system, and more suitable for development if there really are not enough roads now.  And there are many roads within parks.  I've know of many people with disabilities who enjoyed wilderness raft or  boating trips who were able to enjoy the wilderness without opening up roads and eliminating what makes the park special.
Placing park lands in wilderness has a minimal or  no affect on economic development.  Right now the lands can only be developed for park purposes.  There is a lot of strange writing in the comments on this blog that seem so confused they are hard to understand, as they go on about loss of oil or mineral development, or loss of jobs. 
None of  those developmental activities can happen in the parks anyway, with or without wilderness.  In Alaska, the park with far and  away the greatest number of visitor and economic benefit is Denali National Park.  There is just one long road across the top of the park,  where people are permitted to take a bus ride into the park.  Visitors come primarily to see the wildlife.  The wildlife, these wilderness species like brown bear, wolves and caribou, are sustained by the  vast area of wilderness beyond the road.  With more development you would have less willife and less reason for visitor to go.  If more roads were built into that wilderness to provide more access there, my opinion is it would undermine the great show of wildlife, and that would undermine the visitor  experience and the economic benefits  of that park.  Just one example.  But commonplace.  
The way to think of wilderness is  as a management technique, the way to bring the best out of a special landscape that would benefit most if this is the sort of planning and management tool used.  It is not really about the fighting between advocates and opponents of development. 
Wilderness should be applied when  it is the best way to enhance the  essential character of a particular resource.  In that one limited way I agree with Mr. Hastings that wilderness decisions should be made one by one.
Back to the very first post, from "needs to do better" you should know it takes a lot more than balls to avoid what you are calling  "pittances."  It  takes votes.  No one like Secretary Salazar can make wilderness happen without votes of Democrats and Republicans.
Many Republicans voted for the Alaska Lands Act, that set all that AK wilderness aside in 1980.  Republicans have voted for other wilderness legislation also.   This current hostility to wilderness among Republicans is a recent aberation.  It is mostly irrational ideology and cant, because park wilderness  has negligible negative  economic affect, would still leave almost all  the current  developed areas open, because developed roadways within parks  almost always are not considered for wilderness  designaion. 

"Blue" [Democrat majority] States: Fire Island, Haleakala, Hawaii Volcanoes, Lava Beds, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, Point Reyes, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Mojave, Joshua Tree, Olympic, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Isle Royale, Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes (proposed), Carlsbad Caverns, Bandelier, Apostle Islands. 21 States. 968,059 Square Miles. 21 Wilderness Areas.

"Red" [Republican majority] States: Zion, Craters of the Moon, Theodore Roosevelt, Gulf Islands, Guadalupe Mountains, Badlands, Congaree, Cumberland Island, Shenandoah, Glacier Bay, Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali, Lake Clark, Katmai, Kobuk Valley, Gates of the Arctic, Noatak, Chiricahua, Petrified Forest, Saguaro, Organ Pipe Cactus. 22 States. 2,295,217 Square Miles. 21 Wilderness Areas.

"Purple" States: Lake Mead (8), Buffalo, Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Everglades. 7 States. 472,304 Square Miles. 7 Wilderness Areas.

Geography, economics, and politics undoubtedly play roles is whether Wilderness is designated in National Parks, but most Traveler readers would probably be surprised at the lack of support for Wilderness by many National Park Service managers. The following quotes are from:
"The National Park Service (NPS) did not support the inclusion of national parks in the Wilderness System when the Act was signed in 1964 and the agency has never demonstrated a commitment to the Act. NPS Historian Richard Sellers has written: "Although many of the National Park Service’s rank and file enthusiastically supported the wilderness bill, the bureau’s leadership seems to have drifted from outright opposition to reluctant neutrality." The NPS has made this shift by conveniently writing inordinate flexibility into its management standards."
"Eight years after passage of the Wilderness Act, the NPS advocated Wilderness classification for Glacier. However, Director Hartzog and Glacier Superintendent Briggle wanted the proposal to include an aerial tram or gondola route from the Many Glacier Hotel to Grinnell Glacier, and new "wilderness" chalets within 100-acre enclaves at Cosley Lake, Debris Creek, Fifty Mountain, and the head of Kintla Lake. Public opposition sunk these schemes."
Olympic National Park has had extensive designated Wilderness since 1984, but has yet to approve the required Wilderness Management Plan, because of internal opposition to limits on development, chainsaws or helicopter flights, for example. Astoundingly, they were even sued by their own cooperating association:

Really kind of scary to think what it is going to take to change the conversation away from the I hate America movement.  I knew the '60's were going to come back and kick us in the ass.  I personally feel that green energy could contribute some good but to artificially drive up energy costs so Green might be able to compete hands the Iranians and others in the Middle East Billions to fund international Terrorism killing Americans all over the world.  I'll stop short of calling unreasonable environmental policy supporters in bed with terrorists but they both seem to want the same objectives in some cases.   Pretty scary but of course the Parks must be first priority.


Indeed, a quick Internet search shows wilderness issues can be bipartisan...and partisan.
This story talks about legislation introduced by two Republicans, include Darrell Issa:

Yet this one talks about Republican senators blocking wilderness legislation:

Of course, Teddy Roosevelt carried an "R" by his name, and he did quite a bit of good in setting lands aside. And then there's the present-day Republicans for Environmental Protection, which is an organization worth checking out.

As easy as it might seem to hold up present-day Republicans as obstructionists when it comes to public lands and wilderness designations, it seems instead that it's more of an individual choice, not your political affiliation, that tells where you'll come down on wilderness bills or, more generally, environmental issues.

That doesn't seem to be the case in the West. But perhaps part of the reason is that the vast tracts of federal lands (and iconic national parks) are in the West, where the states' rights movement is strongest and voters, and their politicians, tend to be a bit more conservative than elsewhere in the country.

“Within the Intermountain West -- Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana -- you have a faction of Republicans that feels public lands are there to be used,” Jim DiPeso, the policy director for Republicans for Environmental Responsibility, told the Traveler two years ago. “They’re there to be dug, mined, cut, grazed, the resources are there to be put to economic use, whereas the other faction (of Republicans) adheres to that older tradition, the one that Theodore Roosevelt pioneered, 100 years ago...”

Anon who wants to nationalize the oil industry.  Perhaps you should move to Venezuela.  That is such a nice place under nationalization.

Brian, would you please provide some evidence to support your claim that "park wilderness tends to be designated in Democratic states"? 

Aaron, park wilderness tends to be designated in Democratic states or congressional districts like the California parks, or by a congressman with Democratic leanings who is prominent in the Interior department, like the brothers Udall in Arizona. I hate to say but it seems like a very partisan process.

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