Many people are dismayed to learn that our national forests have no automatic protection from logging, mining, drilling, road-building and so on. On the contrary, the US Forest Service operates under a “multiple-use" mandate that requires it to balance the interests of resource extraction with those of recreation, wildlife and other uses on its lands. (The Bureau of Land Management – the other federal agency with major acreage in our area – has similar marching orders.)
Various designations can be applied to federal lands to confer various degrees of protection from development. Of these, wilderness is the strongest and most enduring. It takes an act of Congress to designate wilderness, and once designated, a wilderness area can be altered only by another act of Congress. Wilderness designation is the best way to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities to experience these irreplaceable natural treasures as we do today.
A majority (65%) of Americans support designating new wilderness in their home state. Download the poll.
Preserving land as wilderness is one of the most crucial steps in preventing climate change. Land preservation helps by both mitigating the threat of climate change by sequestering and storing carbon and by helping communities and ecosystems adapt to some of the inevitable changes as result of global warming. Read more here in a detailed article about the importance of uniting efforts to preserve wilderness and prevent climate change.
The Wilderness Act of 1964, along with subsequent clarifying language by Congress, spells out exactly what is and isn’t allowed in federally designated wilderness areas. Other non-wilderness designations have no such template to follow, so the process of applying one of these designations to a particular area must be a unique negotiation between various user groups that almost inevitably compromises ecological protections.
Wilderness prevents industrial activity, permanent structures, roads and motorized and mechanized travel and use. However, there are notable exceptions to these prohibitions. Motorized use and travel are permitted for search and resue, grazing and the managment of fire, disease, and insects. Two articles articles demonstrate this here and here.
There are other vehicles for limiting the uses allowed on federal lands, such as executive orders and forest plans, but these are weaker than Congressional legislation. Executive orders may be reversed by a subsequent administration, while land management decisions made at the local agency level (e.g., a forest plan) are apt to be revisited every 10-15 years or so.
National Parks and National Monuments are guaranteed many protections, but these are established to serve a different purpose than wilderness. Wilderness designation protects lands where people are but visitors, and nature unfolds unimpeded. Wilderness designation best ensures that agencies will practice a “light hand on the land” approach, allowing natural processes to guide management of these lands, keeping them intact for their wildlife values, recreational opportunities, and clean watersheds.
By the way, only public lands can be designated as wilderness – the government cannot impose wilderness on private property. Therefore, the Hidden Gems proposal is strictly limited to public lands in our area.