Bill would release Wilderness Study Areas

Apr 28, 2011

With the ink still drying on the budget resolution that delisted wolves and temporarily defunded Wild Lands two weeks ago, Republican congressmen have advanced new legislation that considerably raises the stakes in the ongoing wilderness debate.

A bill introduced to Congress on April 15 would order the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) to release tens of millions of acres of public lands from restrictive wilderness management and return them to multiple use.

The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, Rob Bishop of Utah, and Steve Pearce of New Mexico, would order the return to multiple use of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) that have been deemed unsuitable for wilderness by the BLM and Forest Service, respectively. The measure would also permanently ban the implementation of the controversial Wild Lands policy introduced by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazer last December.

The Wild Lands Order allows BLM to manage lands with wilderness "characteristics" according to the same strict standards as congressionally-designated wilderness, but without the consent of Congress.

The fate of the nation’s approximately 12 million acres of WSAs has long been a sore spot for natural resource users and wilderness activists alike. In 1976, Congress passed the expansive Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, which ordered BLM to undertake an inventory to identify lands that were candidates for wilderness designation. These candidate wilderness lands were given WSA status until their suitability as wilderness could be determined. As WSAs, they were essentially managed as de facto wilderness in order to preserve their wilderness character until the secretary could recommend that they be officially designated as wilderness, or indicate that they were not suitable for that purpose. The inventory ended in 1991. However, millions of acres of land that were originally designated as WSAs but have since been determined to be unsuitable for wilderness have languished in WSA status, which prevents motorized access to recreationists and natural resource users. Most forms of natural resource development are also excluded.

IRAs on Forest Service land have experienced a similar fate; many such areas have been deemed unsuitable for wilderness, yet have retained their restrictive IRA status for decades.

Natural resource users and many recreationists have long pressed for the release of these lands, while wilderness activists have maintained that the preservation of WSAs and IRAs should continue.

In a letter dated March 29 to fellow members of Congress, the sponsors of the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act explained that the proposed legislation will release WSAs and IRAs which are unsuited for wilderness back to multiple use.

"BLM manages over 12 million acres of WSAs, of which the agency has recommended that more than half (6.7 million acres) are not suitable for wilderness," the letter stated. "In the USFS’ second Roadless Area and Review Evaluation of federal forests, the service has recommended 15 million acres as suitable for wilderness and 36.1 acres as not suitable for wilderness. However, because of current law and regulations, WSAs and IRAs, even those not suitable for wilderness, must be managed in a restrictive fashion that can restrict access, public enjoyment, and many other activities on these lands."

The bill seeks elimination of the long-standing restrictions on these lands, and to reopen them to motorized access and resource use.

"As strong supporters of multiple-use principles for our public lands, we should release public lands from restrictive management practices that are unnecessary," the letter explained.

Wilderness activists, however, are staunchly opposed to the wholesale release of WSAs and IRAs, regardless of whether they have been found unsuitable for wilderness by agency. In a press release on the organization’s web page, the Wilderness Society condemned the bill, claiming it would "roll back existing protections and place at risk tens of millions more acres of wilderness-quality but unprotected National Forest and BLM public lands."

In an interview with WLJ, Wilderness Society’s National Wilderness Campaigns Associate Director Paul Spitler elaborated on this position, explaining that agency assessments that WSAs are unsuitable for wilderness have often been rejected by Congress. Indeed, many areas originally deemed unsuitable for wilderness by agency have ultimately been designated as wilderness by Congress, Spitler claimed. Therefore, only Congress’ express determination, and not agency’s assessment, should dictate the fate of WSAs and IRAs.

"The bill would remove existing protections on tens of millions of acres of wilderness caliber land. And while some of these areas may not be appropriate for permanent wilderness designations, many of them are," said Spitler. "We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Congress to unilaterally remove these protections without giving each area the site-specific consideration that it deserves."

However, Spitler echoed the view, often expressed by public lands ranchers, that Congress needs to move forward on making wilderness determinations on existing WSAs and IRAs, regardless.

Said Spitler, "There have been WSAs that have been in existence for 20 years, and that’s no failing of the agencies. That’s a failing of Congress to actually take action and make determinations on which lands should be wilderness, and which lands shouldn’t be."

Without question, this circumstance is precisely what has prompted the introduction of the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act. However, while its 22 Republican co-sponsors clearly aim to remedy the situation by relying on agency assessment to guide Congress’ decision to release WSAs and IRAs, the Wilderness Society endorses Congress making its determination for each area individually.

Beyond the release of WSAs and IRAs deemed unsuitable as wilderness, the bill also calls for the termination of the highly controversial Wild Lands policy, which instructs BLM to preserve wilderness values in a very similar fashion to WSAs. Moreover, it bars the secretary of Interior from issuing any new order that would direct BLM to manage WSAs released by the legislation in a manner that was contrary to the existing land use plan.

If successful, the legislation could mean that thousands of public lands ranchers will have better access to their grazing permits, allowing them to enhance management and grazing practices. It would also open millions of acres to increased recreation and development opportunities, injecting a much-needed economic stimulus into rural communities. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent