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Wilderness: Overview and Statistics
Ross W. Gorte
The U.S. Forest Service established the first protected "wilderness area" under its own discretion in 1924. In 1964, the Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, reserved to Congress the authority to designate wilderness areas, and directed the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior to review certain lands for their wilderness potential. The Act also designated 54 wilderness areas with 9 million acres of Forest Service land. Congress began expanding the Wilderness System in 1968, and today, there are 631 wilderness areas, totalling nearly 104 million acres, in 44 States.
The Wilderness Act defined wilderness as an area of generally undisturbed Federal land, but did not establish criteria or standards to determine whether an area should be designated, because of differing perceptions of wilderness and because of the varying purposes of wilderness. In general, wilderness areas are undeveloped, and commercial activities, motorized access, and roads, structures, and facilities are prohibited in wilderness areas. However, in response to conflicting demands, Congress has granted both general exemptions and specific exceptions to the general standards and prohibitions.
The Federal Government owns nearly 29 percent of the land in the United States, although the proportion in each State varies widely. Most of the Federal lands are managed by one of four agencies -- the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior. These agencies manage the 104 million acres of designated wilderness, as well as many other lands. In addition, they have recommended adding 29 million more acres to the Wilderness System, and are reviewing the wilderness potential of additional lands. In total, more than 20 percent of all Federal land, and nearly 6 percent of all land in the United States, has been designated as, or recommended for, wilderness.
Alaska, because of its size and relatively pristine condition, dominates wilderness statistics. More than 55 percent of designated wilderness and more than 37 percent of the lands recommended for wilderness are in Alaska. In total, nearly 19 percent of the land in Alaska has been designated as or recommended for wilderness. In contrast, less than 4 percent of the U.S. land outside Alaska has been designated as or recommended for wilderness.
WILDERNESS: OVERVIEW AND STATISTICS
The 1964 Wilderness Act established a national system of congressionally designated areas authorized to be preserved in a wilderness condition. The National Wilderness Preservation System was created with 9 million acres of Forest Service lands. Congress has since expanded the Wilderness System to nearly 104 million acres, and Federal agencies, Members of Congress, and interest groups have recommended more lands for inclusion in the System. Furthermore, at the direction of Congress, several agencies are studying the wilderness potential of other Federal lands. This report provides a brief history of wilderness, describes what wilderness is, identifies permitted and prohibited uses in wilderness areas, and provides statistics on wilderness designations and Federal agency recommendations, as of November 30, 1994.
Retaining certain lands in Federal ownership -- by creating national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges -- was the first major step toward protecting the natural environment. Beginning in 1897, management of the national forests emphasized conservation -- the protection and development of the lands. However, it did not take long to recognize the need to preserve some areas in a natural state. Acting at its own discretion, the U.S. Forest Service created the first wilderness area in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) in 1924. In the succeeding decades, the agency's system of wilderness, wild, and primitive areas grew to 14.6 million acres. However, concerns arose about the permanence of this purely administrative system. The Forest Service had relied on its administrative authority in making these designations; there was no law guaranteeing the future of wilderness.
In response to these concerns, Congress enacted the Wilderness Act (1) in 1964. The Act defines "wilderness," and prohibits or restricts certain activities in wilderness areas, while permitting other activities to occur. The Act also reserves to Congress the authority to designate areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Wilderness System was initially endowed with the 9.1 million acres of national forest lands that had been identified administratively as wilderness areas or wild areas. The Wilderness Act also directed the Agriculture Secretary to review the agency's 5.5 million acres of primitive areas, and the Secretary of the Interior to evaluate the wilderness potential of National Park System and National Wildlife Refuge System lands. The Secretaries were to report their recommendations to the President and to Congress within 10 years (i.e., by 1974). Separate recommendations for wilderness designations were made for individual areas; many have been designated, and some of the recommendations are still pending (and are included in table 4). The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) (2) directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct a similar review of the lands it administers within 15 years. The BLM has submitted its recommendations to the President, and Presidential recommendations for several States have been submitted to Congress.
In 1977, the Forest Service began a review (RARE II (3)) of 62 million acres of national forest roadless areas, as an acceleration of the land management planning process mandated by the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 (RPA) and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA). (4) The RARE II Final Environmental Statement was issued in January 1979, recommending more than 15 million acres (24.3 percent of the study area) for addition to the Wilderness System. Nearly 11 million acres (17.4 percent) were to be studied further in the ongoing Forest Service planning under NFMA. The remaining 36 million acres (58.3 percent of the RARE II area) were to be available for other uses -- such as logging, energy and mineral developments, and motorized recreation -- which might be incompatible with preserving wilderness characteristics. In April 1979, President Carter presented the recommendations to Congress largely unchanged.
The 90th Congress began expanding the Wilderness System in 1968, as shown in table 1. Five laws were enacted, creating 5 new wilderness areas with 795,000 acres in 4 States. Wilderness designations generally increased in each succeeding Congress, rising to a peak of 60.8 million acres designated during the 96th Congress (1979-1980). The largest designation was 56.4 million acres of wilderness designated in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. (5) The California Desert Wilderness Act of 1994, (6) designating 7.7 million acres of wilderness in southern California, is the second largest designation since the Wilderness Act. Since the RARE II recommendations were issued, Congress has usually debated wilderness legislation (especially for National Forest System lands) for entire States.
(a) Column total differs from this figure, because of acreage revisions.
The wilderness designation debate was particularly intense during the 98th Congress (1983-1984). In 1980, the State of California successfully challenged Forest Service RARE II recommendations for 44 areas to nonwilderness uses, with the court decision substantially upheld on appeal in late 1982. (7) In 1983, the Reagan Administration responded by directing a re-evaluation all RARE II recommendations, except in States with wilderness laws containing certain provisions. (8) A compromise in May 1984 led to the enactment of 21 wilderness laws designating 8.6 million acres of wilderness in 21 States -- more laws and more acreage (outside of Alaska) than any Congress since the Wilderness System was created. Table 2 summarizes the major events in the development of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Since the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, Congress has enacted 88 laws designating new wilderness areas or adding to existing ones, as shown in table 1. The Wilderness System now contains 630 wilderness areas with nearly 104 million acres in 44 States, managed by the four Federal land management agencies, as shown in table 4. In addition, the agencies have recommended another 29 million acres in 26 States be added to the Wilderness System, as shown in table 5; these lands are generally managed to protect their wilderness character while Congress considers adding them to the Wilderness System. Additional lands are being studied by the agencies, to determine if they should be added to the System, but comprehensive data on lands being reviewed for wilderness potential are not available.
The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area of generally undisturbed Federal land. Specifically, section 2(c) states:
This definition provides some general guidelines for determining which areas should, or should not, be designated wilderness, but there are no specific criteria in the law. The phrases "untrammeled by man," "retaining its primeval character," and "man's work substantially unnoticeable" are far from precise. Even the numerical standard -- 5,000 acres -- is not absolute; smaller areas can be designated, if they can be protected, and the smallest wilderness area -- Wisconsin Islands in the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge -- is only 2 acres.
One reason for the imprecise criteria for wilderness is differing perceptions of what constitutes "wilderness." To some, a "wilderness" is an area where there is absolutely no sign of human presence: no traffic can be heard (including aircraft); no roads, structures, or litter can be seen. To others, sleeping in a van or camper in a 400-site campground in Yellowstone National Park is a "wilderness experience." Complicating these differing perceptions is the wide-ranging ability to "get away from it all" in various areas; in a densely wooded area, "getting away" might be measured in yards, while in mountainous or desert terrain, human developments can be seen for miles.
In an attempt to accommodate these contrasting views of wilderness, the Wilderness Act provided certain exemptions and delayed implementation of restrictions for wilderness areas, as will be discussed below. At times, Congress has also responded to the conflicting demands of various interest groups by allowing additional exemptions for certain uses (especially for existing activities) in particular wilderness designations. Ultimately, "wilderness areas" are whatever Congress designates as wilderness, regardless of developments or activities which some would argue conflict with the definition of wilderness.
In general, the Wilderness Act prohibits commercial activities, motorized access, and roads, structures, and facilities in wilderness areas. Specifically, section 4(c) states:
This section prohibits most commercial resource exploitation (such as timber harvesting) and motorized entry (via cars, trucks, ORVs, aircraft, or motorboats) except in emergencies. However, section 4(d) provides numerous exceptions, including: (a) possible continued use of motorboats and aircraft; (b) fire, insect, and disease control measures; (c) mineral prospecting conducted "in a manner compatible with the preservation of the wilderness environment;" (d) water project developments; (e) continued livestock grazing; and (f) commercial recreation activities.
In addition to these exemptions, the Wilderness Act extended the mining and mineral leasing laws for wilderness areas in national forests for 20 years, through 1983.(9) New mining claims and mineral leases were permitted for many wilderness areas, and exploration and development were authorized "subject, however, to such reasonable regulations governing ingress and egress as may be prescribed by the Secretary of Agriculture." Despite this authority, no permits for on-site exploration were considered until James Watt became Secretary of the Interior in 1981.(10) Litigation halted a drilling application in Montana that year, and Congress enacted a moratorium on wilderness area leasing and exploration in the Interior Department appropriations laws for FY1983 and FY1984. However, mineral rights existing on or before December 31, 1983 (or before the area was designated), remain valid, and can be developed if the right-holder chooses, under "reasonable regulations" determined by the Secretary of Agriculture, and some mineral exploration has occurred in designated wilderness areas under such regulations.(11)
The Wilderness Act also directs that the Act not alter existing Federal-State relationships with respect to State water laws or State fish and wildlife responsibilities. Specifically, section 4(d) (as codified at 16 U.S.C. 1133) states:
However, the extent and nature of Federal water rights that might arise from wilderness designations continues to be an important issue for Congress.(12)
The following tables present data on the Federal lands managed by the four principal Federal land management agencies and on the acreage designated as wilderness and recommended by the agencies for wilderness. The data were gathered from several agency sources, as described below. This section describes the agency land data shown in table 3 and the wilderness statistics shown in tables 4, 5, and 6.
Table 3 shows the area managed by the four major Federal land manage-ment agencies.(13) The data are not directly comparable across agencies, however, because of differences in accounting practices. The agency data also differ from the statistics maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration.(14) Differences occur in part because official ownership status often differs from managerial responsibility; for example, the Forest Service administers 462,678 acres in Oregon that are technically public lands. Another complication is partial ownership, such as tsplit estates," with the Federal Government owning only the surface (or the subsurface), and another owner for the subsurface (or surface) rights; similarly, some lands are managed by the Federal Government under easements and long-term leases, without Federal ownership. Thus, the agency acreage statistics in table 3 probably overstate actual Federal land ownership.
The data in table 3 are from agency sources; the agency data (rather than GSA data) were used because they most closely match the agency wilderness data. The acreage shown in table 3 is generally limited to the lands administered by the agency or for which the agency has primary responsibility. The following list identifies the data sources for each of the agencies.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service. Land Areas of the National Forest System As of September 30, 1993. Report No. FS-383. Washington, DC: Feb. 1994. 108 p.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service. Master Deed Listing of Acreages by State as of: 9/31/94. Unpublished. Washington, DC: Oct. 19, 1994. 2 p.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Realty. Annual Report of Lands Under Control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as of September 30, 1993. Washington, DC: n.d. 43 p.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. Public Land Statistics 1992. Vol. 177. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., Sept. 1993. 140p.
The wilderness statistics presented in tables 4 and 5 are the current acreage estimates by the agencies. Table 4 is the estimated acreage for areas that have been designated by Congress. Table 5 identifies the estimated acreage of areas recommended by the agencies for addition to the Wilderness System, but which have not yet been acted upon by Congress; it includes all BLM Wilderness Study Areas in California, because the agency has not yet revised its recommendations to reflect the designations in the California Desert Protection Act. Table 6 is the sum of tables 4 and 5 -- the estimated acreage of designated or recommended wilderness areas. In addition, the agencies continue to review the wilderness potential of other lands under their jurisdiction, both of congressionally designated wilderness study areas and under congressionally directed land management planning efforts. However, data on acreage being studied, particularly in the planning efforts, are unavailable.
The data sources for designated wilderness are generally similar to those listed above, for general land statistics for each agency. Forest Service wilderness recommendations were presented to the General Accounting Office, and then published in its study of Wilderness Study Areas.(15) Wilderness recommendations for the Interior agencies (and the National Park Service data on designated wilderness) are unpublished, but are available from the agencies.(16) These statistics have been updated to account for subsequent wilderness designations by Congress, particularly the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
As of November 30, 1994, Congress had designated 103.7 million acres of Federal land as the National Wilderness Preservation System, as shown in table 4. More than 55 percent of this land -- 57.4 million acres -- is in Alaska, and includes most of the wilderness areas managed by the National Park Service (76 percent) and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (90 percent). A third of the Wilderness System is managed by the Forest Service, but 83 percent of Forest Service wilderness area is outside Alaska.
Another 29.2 million acres have been recommended by various agencies for additions to the Wilderness System on the lands they administer, as shown in table 5. Nearly half of these pending recommendations are in the National Park System, and include several large, well-known areas, such as Yellowstone, Big Bend, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Congress has not acted on the Forest Service RARE II recommendations for Idaho and Montana; the recommendations shown in table 5 are largely the result of the agency's land management planning process. The BLM submitted its recommendations to the President by 1991, as required by FLPMA, and Presidents Bush and Clinton have forwarded recommendations for BLM wilderness to Congress.
In total, 132.9 million acres, of a total U.S. landmass of 2.271 billion acres, have been designated as or recommended for wilderness, as shown in table 6. Half of this -- 68.3 million acres -- is in Alaska, and accounts for 28 percent of the land in the State. The remaining 64.6 million acres are distributed among 45 other States; only Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, and Rhode Island have no Federal lands designated as or recommended for wilderness. Total land designated as or recommended for wilderness accounts for nearly 6 percent of all land in the United States, and more than 20 percent of all Federal land. Outside Alaska, lands designated as or recommended for wilderness account for less than 4 percent of all land in the United States.
Federal Designated Wilderness Acreage, by State and by Agency
n.r = not relevant; the agency owns no land within the State. TABLE 4 Federal Designated Wilderness Acreage, by State and by Agency (in acres and percentage of agency/Federal land)
n.r = not relevant; the agency owns no land within the State.
5. Additional Acreage Recommended for Wilderness, by State and by Agency
n.r = not relevant; the agency owns no land within the State.
a. This is the acreage remaining in Wilderness Study Areas after enactment of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
TABLE 5. Additional Acreage Recommended for Wilderness, by State and by
n.r = not relevant; the agency owns no land within the State.
6. Federal Land Designated as or Recommended for Wilderness, by State and by Agency
n.r = not relevant; the agency owns no land within the State.
a. Includes all Wilderness Study Area acreage after enactment of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
l. Act of September 3, 1964, Public Law 88-577, 78 Stat. 890.
2. Act of October 21,1976, Public Law 94-579,90 Stat. 2743.
3. The first Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE I) was begun under the agency's administrative authority in 1970, but was abandoned in 1972 because of a lawsuit asserting the review had been restricted in ways that violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (Act of January l, 1970, Public Law 9l-l90, 83 Stat. 852).
4. Respectively: Act of August 17,1974, Public Law 93-378,88 Stat. 476; and Act of October 22,1976, Public Law 94-588,90 Stat. 2949. 16 U.S.C.1600-1614.
5. Act of December 2,1980, Public Law 96-487,94 Stat. 2371.
6. Act of October 31,1994, Public Law 103-433.
7. California v. Bergland, 483 F. Supp.465 (E.D.Cal.1980), aff'd in part, rev'd in part, 690 F.2d 753 (9th Cir. 1982).
8. For a history of the debate over these "release language provisions, see: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Wilderness Legislation: History of Release Language, 1979-1992. [by Ross W. Gorte and Pamela Baldwin.] CRS Report for Congress No. 93-280 ENR. Washington, March 1, 1993. 11 p.
9. Most lands in the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System have been withdrawn from access under the mining and mineral leasing laws, while extensive BLM wilderness designations were apparently not contemplated until FLPMA was enacted in 1976. Thus, the Wilderness Act addressed mining and mineral leasing only in the national forests.
l0. Although national forests are managed by the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, mining claims and mineral leases on most Federal lands, including the national forests, are administered by the BLM in the Department of the Interior.
ll. Olen Paul Mathews, Amy Haak, and Kathryn Toffenetti. "Mining and Wilderness: Incompatible Uses or Justifiable Compromise?" Environment, v. 27 (April 1985): 12-17, 30-36.
12. For a more thorough discussion of this issue, see: U.S. Library of Congress, Con-gressional Research Service. Wilderness Areas and Federal Water Rights. [by Pamela Baldwin.] CRS Report for Congress 89-11 A. Washington, Jan. 4, 1989. 50 p.
13. Other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, control some Federal land, but land and resource management is not their primary mission.
14. U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Governmentwide Real Property Relations. Summary Report of Real Property Owned by the United States Throughout the World as of September 30, 1991. Washington, DC: Dec. 1993. p. 30.
l5. U.S. General Accounting Office. Federal Land Management: Status and Uses of Wilderness Study Areas. GAO/RCED-93-151. Washington, DC: Sept. 1993.
l6. Personal communication with Peter Keller, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Washington, DC, June 17, 1994.
Personal communication with Keith Corrigal, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Washington, DC, Dec. 1, 1992 and Dec. 1, 1994.
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuge System: Current Status of Wilderness. Unpublished report. February 1983.