Obama administration: September is â€˜National Wilderness Monthâ€™Written by Jennifer Womack
On Sept. 4 President Obama signed a proclamation designating September as “National Wilderness Month.” The designation is, in part, a celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 45th anniversary. According to a USDA press release the proclamation calls on…“all Americans to visit and enjoy our wilderness areas, learn more about our wilderness heritage, and explore what can be done to protect and preserve these precious national treasures.”
“As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we recognize that a healthy and prosperous America relies on the health of our wilderness areas,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Our National Forest Wilderness Areas are a national inheritance that not only help generate rural wealth through recreation and tourism, but also supply communities with clean water, shelter wildlife, and help us mitigate and adapt to climate change.”
“2009 was a banner year for Wilderness, with over two million acres added to the National Wilderness Preservation System through the Omnibus Lands Act of 2009, bringing the total system acreage to over 109 million,” says the USDA statement. If New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is successful in seeing her Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act passed, an additional 24 million acres could be designated across the western region. A committee hearing on the bill was held in May of this year.
The U.S. Forest Service, one of the four federal agencies administering the National Wilderness Preservation System, according to the Wyoming Wilderness Association, manages three million acres of national forest wilderness in Wyoming. The group contends another three million acres is worthy of designation. On BLM holdings, the group finds two million acres they believe are worthy of the categorization as wilderness.
BLM managers in the state, according to Wyoming State Grazing Board Grazing Consultant Dick Loper, were instructed in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to inventory eligible lands and submit their findings to Congress. The resulting report, filed in the early 1980s, designated nearly 39 Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) covering 567,076 acres. To date, congress has not revisited the report so there aren’t any designated wilderness areas on BLM holdings within Wyoming. Management surrounding the WSA designation, says Loper, is more restrictive than that applied to designated areas.
“There are ranchers I’ve talked to,” says Loper, “who are discouraged they can’t get range improvements approved despite the fact they’re economically feasible and would improve the country for both wildlife and livestock. It’s just because they’re in a study area.”
Loper says his group would like to see the WSA issue on BLM lands resolved because some of the areas being managed as a WSA don’t meet the designating criteria, such as a block of 5,000 roadless acres. “The frustration over the lack of congressional attention encourages people to seek other labels like Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Natural Area or the others.”
Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna says the late Senator Thomas was approached about legislation to either see the WSA designations declared as wilderness or returned to traditional management. Thomas’ reluctance to pursue such a bill stemmed from the fear that legislation would provide an opportunity for widespread additional wilderness designations. Since that time, Magagna says a timeline approach has been discussed. Under the proposal, WSAs not decided upon within a certain timeframe would be released from the designation.
When Gale Norton was Secretary of Interior under the Bush administration, Magagna says she issued an order affirming that the BLM couldn’t expand its WSA designations. The order came in response to a debate as to whether or not the agency had such ongoing authority under the FLPMA. To date, Magagna says he’s not aware of any challenges to Norton’s instructions.
Magagna grazed sheep in the Forest Service’s Washakie Wilderness Area for over 30 years. “I’ve always maintained that a designation can work against the very values you’re seeking to protect,” says Magagna of what he describes as the “neon lights” surrounding a designation. “Once that area became designated wilderness it brought national attention and we started getting a lot of traffic. This negatively impacted the pristine nature of the area.”
Magagna says, “Even though the Wilderness Act protects livestock grazing, decision makers at the Forest Service were more inclined to decide conflicts in favor of perceived wilderness values that included recreation.” He says the designation came with restrictions on where sheep could be bedded and popular recreation areas that were off-limits to grazing. “It became more and more difficult until I decided, this isn’t the place to be anymore.”
Sublette County Commissioner and rancher Joel Bousman says the land designations can pose challenges for not only those who support multiple-use, but in land management cases involving the county. Bousman was among those who testified against Maloney’s wilderness legislation during the May 2009 committee hearing.
LaBarge Creek Road in Sublette County and neighboring Lincoln County runs along the edge of WSA on BLM land, according to Bousman. While the county commissioners contend the designation ends at the 100-foot easement on the road, the forest service claims it runs to the road’s edge and therefore prohibits running a blade down the barrow ditch to return the gravel to the roadbed. The road serves area residents and is a primary access route to the national forest lands beyond the designated area.
Bousman says wilderness designations, and all of the associated special designations limit the tools available for management. Chainsaws, for example, can’t be used to maintain trails or for other purposes in the areas. Bousman says under present-day management it’s tough to draw a comparison between the health of forestlands within designated areas and those outside of such areas. “If the non-wilderness areas were being properly managed, then yes I think they would be healthier than the designated areas.”
Magagna says there are better approaches to land management than the “broad brush” approach of a wilderness designation. “If there are specific actions we don’t want to take place or want to limit in specific areas, let’s address them individually and avoid the designation that puts neon lights around the area.”
“Western rangelands need managed to maintain the health of the resource,” says Loper. “Some of us are seeing what we believe to be a decline in the health of these areas. As the health of these lands deteriorate, far more than livestock are affected. It also affects the wildlife populations.”