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Why Wilderness?

About Non-Wilderness Designations

Wilderness advocates believe our most treasured landscapes deserve the highest protection possible and is committed to protecting these wilderness-quality lands, lakes and streams with federal wilderness designation. 

Some recreational user groups promote the use of non-wilderness designations, such as National Conservation Areas and National Recreation Areas. If not crafted properly, these designations could leave wilderness-quality land and water exposed to motorized recreation and possibly more intense, industrial activities such as logging, mining and gas drilling.

Across Colorado wilderness advocates have worked hard with local users and stakeholders to develop a proposal to permanently protect some of our last best places. Only with wilderness designation will these vital mid-elevation habitats, wildlife migration corridors, high-mountain lakes and free flowing streams are assured to remain intact for generations to come.

Wilderness quality lands deserve wilderness protection.  The Wilderness Act of 1964 is embedded with a leave no trace ethic, outlining exactly what activities are and are not allowed in wilderness. By contrast, no similar law defines permitted activities in National Conservation Areas or National Recreation Areas, so each and every area with such a designation has its own, unique set of rules.

Non-wilderness designations can carry greater risk of opening public lands to all kinds of uses -- from dams and water diversions to motorized recreation, logging, oil development, and other industrial activities.  These uses are not compatible with the natural qualities, solitude and quiet that make wilderness so special.  And it is not possible to guarantee that non-wilderness designations will be done well and in a manner that will protect the land for future generations.

Mountain bikers and motorized recreationalists may intend companion designations to be “just like wilderness, except with extra recreation allowed,” but that it is impossible to guarantee these wild places will be protected. Parties with deep pockets and no interest in protecting the land have repeatedly found ways to undermine land protection with non-wilderness designations. Click here for some examples.   In some cases, motorized users, mountain bikers and mining interests have together opposed wilderness protection in favor of substitute designations. If mining interests prefer them, do these non-wilderness designations provide any real protection at all?

Companion designations are sometimes appropriate and may provide additional, limited protection for lands that do not have wilderness qualities and are unsuited for wilderness designation. However, companion designations are best employed as a complement to designated wilderness, to protect public lands that neighbor wilderness areas or to safeguard other special public lands that are not suitable for wilderness designation. 

Wilderness designation is about much more than recreation. It's about preserving Colorado's heritage, our relationship with the land. It's about ensuring that future generations find this place largely as we found it -- wild and beautiful. 

Examples of Non-Wilderness Designations

Many non-wilderness designations have allowed for activities that substantially undermine the natural values they were created to protect. The following bullets highlight a few such instances.�

National Recreation Areas (NRAs)

•    Out of hundreds of sections of legislation related to the designation and administration of NRAs contained in the United States Code, seven contained language restricting or prohibiting timber harvest and/or motorized recreation. In the vast majority of cases, the legislation merely authorized a local “council,” “trust,” or “committee” to determine management of these activities. On the other hand, there are numerous pieces of legislation authorizing timber harvest and motorized recreation within the NRA boundary.

•    Because Congress did not put restrictions on motorized use in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (ODNRA), despite the fact that a large proportion of the area was inventoried roadless, ORVs have overrun it—destroying rare plants, spreading invasive weeds, and eliminating opportunities for quiet recreation.

•    Because Congress did not prohibit logging when it created the Oregon Cascades Recreation Area (OCRA), the Forest Service has proposed logging more than 300 acres and building new roads there. Acres slated for logging overlap with inventoried roadless areas and proposed wilderness.

•    The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was established to "assure that the natural beauty, and historical and archaeological values of the Hells Canyon area...are preserved for this and future generations." But logging, grazing, and motorized recreation have continued at levels that endanger the canyon ecosystem. The Forest Service admits that domestic sheep have brought disease to bighorn in the area. The agency also admits that off-road vehicles have created an extensive system of unauthorized routes, facilitated the spread of invasive weeds, created serious disturbance impacts to game populations, and facilitated illegal game harvesting. The use of jet boats on the Snake River has eliminated opportunities for quiet recreation and solitude in the canyon itself.

•    Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort operates on the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area under a special-use permit. Portions of the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area are also fee use areas. Very few of the most crowded wilderness areas impose fees on users. â�¨

National Conservation Areas (NCAs).

•    Even the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) has reservations about the efficacy NCAs: “IMBA agrees with national environmental groups that NCAs, as enacted to date, offer insufficient protections. We believe that Congress should enact an Organic Act, a law that would govern all NCAs, and that law should prohibit new roads and development in NCAs. However, NCAs may include lands with existing roads, and thus could protect lands that disqualify as Wilderness. NCAs could have a specific management purpose such as ecological restoration or wildlife security.” See http://www.imba.com/resources/land_protection/wilderness_toolkit_8.html

•    When King Range NCA was established Congress gave little direction on logging, mineral development, and off-road vehicle management. Logging was put to an end only after the spotted owl controversy. Off-road vehicle management took nearly 30 years to control. In that 30 year period off-road vehicle use forever destroyed archeological sites, caused long-lasting impacts to the dune ecosystem, and motivated constant conflict between area users. In 1997 the area was closed entirely to off-road vehicle use. In 2006 2/3rds of the area was designated wilderness and protected for good.

•    Controlling grazing, ORV use, invasive species and other threats continues to be a struggle in Birds of Prey NCA. At one time the NCA had the highest concentration of nesting birds of prey in North America. A small nesting area along the Snake River is managed to maintain its natural state, but the larger area—providing a raptor prey base—allows for grazing, open off-road vehicle use, and provides a military training ground. The proliferation of invasive weeds due to grazing and off-road vehicle use has drastically reduced the amount of sage in the area, reduced the number of jackrabbits, and dramatically reduced the number of golden eagles. Undesignated roads and rampant off-road vehicle use make dumping and poaching constant problems. There are now only two nesting pairs of Golden Eagles in the NCA.