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Jon Jarvis Supports More Official Wilderness in National Park System


Despite its rugged feel, Glacier National Park has no officially designated wilderness. Moose in Swiftcurrent Lake by Kurt Repanshek.

Wilderness. It's where the wild things are. It's a place where the stress of everyday life in the "real" world can be swept away.

Since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, nearly 109.5 million acres of America's landscape has been set aside as officially designated wilderness. These are places left to be "untrammeled" by humans, where natural processes are supposed to reign supreme. Most of these places, though, are hard to reach for most travelers, as all but 2.5 percent of official U.S. wilderness is found in Alaska, according to the National Park Service. That found in the lower 48, or coterminous, states, is salted here and there across the landscape.

Official wilderness areas in the United States range in size from as few as 6 acres at Pelican Island near North Beach, Florida, to more than 9 million acres in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. In the lower 48, the largest contiguous expanse of wilderness can be found in Idaho, where the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Gospel Hump Wilderness comprise more than 2.5 million acres.

Do we need more wilderness? That question can easily elicit a range of answers, from a resounding "Yes!" from those who believe there's a human need for an unfettered connection to wild lands, one that you don't necessarily need to experience to appreciate, to a determined "No!" from those who find the constraints that come with official wilderness designation -- no mechanized travel, whether your definition of that is a four-wheeler or a mountain bike, usually no livestock grazing, mining, or logging -- too onerous.

Of late there's been quite a bit of chatter about wilderness. President Obama designated September as National Wilderness Month, proponents of a Maine North Woods National Park and Preserve have said there's a need for officially designated wilderness in the Northeast, and the superintendent of Glacier National Park last week called for official wilderness designation for much of his park.

While it is true that much of the rugged, backcountry landscapes that can be found in the National Park System are managed as wilderness, that's a big difference from being officially designated as wilderness. The National Park Service points that out on its web pages, noting that "the wild, undeveloped areas of national parks (often called backcountry) are subject to development, road building, and off-road mechanized vehicular use. National park backcountry is protected only by administrative regulations that agency officials can change. The Wilderness Act protects designated wilderness areas by law 'for the permanent good of the whole people.' With the Wilderness Act, Congress secures 'for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.'

Jon Jarvis, the recently confirmed director of the National Park Service, agrees there's a need for more wilderness in the National Park System.

“I’m a big proponent and supporter of wilderness designation in national parks. I think it raises our standards, it sets the very highest of land protection within national parks as well," he told the Traveler last week. "I was early in my career very active in helping draft the legislation and drawing the boundaries for North Cascades (National Park) when the Washington parks wilderness bill was passed in 1988, designating wilderness in (Mount) Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. I also rewrote the original 1970s wilderness proposal at Crater Lake when I was the park biologist there.

“So some of these things (national park wilderness designations) have just languished for many years. I have a deep and abiding affection for wilderness, not only wilderness designation, but wilderness management as well," added the director. "And I think sometimes we expend too much of our energy on the designation and not enough on the management side of wilderness as well. It is going to be an area of emphasis of mine as director.”

Some no doubt would be surprised to learn that Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park, has no officially designated wilderness. Or that while Glacier's superintendent, Chas Cartwright, was just talking about the need for official wilderness in his backyard, he pointed out that it was back when President Nixon occupied the White House that the park's managers were first asked to compile maps for use in setting aside official wilderness in the park.

Designating wilderness is not easily done. That's evidenced not only by the long-running chapter in Glacier but also in Utah, where the Red Rocks Wilderness Act has been circulated (some would say languishing) in Congress since the late 1980s. The problem, of course, is that without congressional support, wilderness does not gain official designation. As a result, it can take many conversations, and much time, to reach consensus on such designations.

“I think it varies from state to state. We’ve been very successful here in California with wilderness designations," Director Jarvis said. "I think we can be successful in the Northwest pretty easily. Tougher in some other parts of the country. It's just a matter of developing the relationship and working with the delegations regardless of their party affiliations. In general, they like parks. That’s certainly been my experience. I’ve worked in the arid West, I’ve worked in Alaska. I've found that part of the solution is just sitting down earlier, getting out the maps and talking about what they want to protect. Just talking about their own personal experiences in many of these places as well.”

Bonus coverage: For more facts and information on official wilderness, check out these sites:






Wilderness designation is valuable for a national park because it adds extra protection against development of the backcountry. The 1916 NPS Organic Act sets a high standard, but there's a vulnerability there that can be exploited by proponents of development. The Bush administration was able to propose a major rewrite of the NPS Management Policies favoring more development and argue that all the changes were consistent with the 1916 Act. The Wilderness Act in its section 4(c) more clearly prohibits commercial enterprises, roads, motor vehicles, motorized equipment, mechanical transport, and any structures or installations.

I'd like to see the current roadless areas in Great Smoky Mountains NP set aside as official wilderness areas. It amazes me this hasn't happened by now.

All of our parks and monuments should be safe from development. What's wrong with congress that this has not happened?

There always will be some level of development including visitor facilities. I for one appreciate that there are bathrooms, boardwalks, visitor centers, food service, etc when I visit NPS areas.

Great, let's make more of our parks inaccessible to those who are not physically fit enough to venture out for days at a time, who are not fortunate enough to get time off work and who are not wealthy enough to purchase equipment for long slogs through the outdoors.

Preservation makes sense. Creating a caste system, where the elites have swathes of land to themselves and the poor, the busy and the unfit are crammed to visitors centers and short loop roads.

There are common sense answers to overcrowding. Zion Canyon's management plan is a great example of some of those answers. More parks still won't be "loved to death" no matter how easy you make it to access them -- look at Capitol Reef, Great Basin, Olympic... all have good access and still manage to stay protected.

It's frustrating to me to know that if the powers that be were in charge today, I would never have seen many of the places in the park system that are dearest to me -- Zion Canyon, the Kolob Terrace, the Wheeler Peak sky island at Great Basin, Dante's View at Death Valley, the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic.

There was a great column in the Seattle PI not long ago about this. I wholeheartedly agree with it. If you want to stop development, fine -- don't do that at the expense of access. If you need to control usage levels, great -- do that without cutting things off completely.


You cite Olympic National Park as an example of good access. Olympic is 95% designated wilderness. It's probably one of the most wilderness-heavy parks out there, yet you can still drive right into the middle of the Hoh rainforest. I agree Olympic is a wonderful example of vast areas protected from any artificial intrusion while still offering easy to access to areas representing everything Olympic is about. That's why I'd like to see more designated wilderness in the other parks.

Being poor (my backpacking gear is second hand and generally laughed at by the "in" crowd), overweight (live next to a Wendy's), and holding a full time job, I was not aware wilderness areas weren't intended for me. I spend a lot of time hiking and camping in wilderness. It's a very inexpensive hobby, doesn't need to tax the body more than you want it to, and can be done for anywhere from an afternoon to a three-week trek. The argument that wilderness designation protects land for the enjoyment only of a privileged class is baseless. It certainly won't be accessible to every single citizen of the country, but if a vast majority of people think they can't enjoy the wilderness they are simply ignorant of the means to do so rather than lacking of the resources or ability.

If you want to stop development, fine -- don't do that at the expense of access.

But access often is development. Roads are development. I may agree with the specific point of that article that the wilderness area could be nudged in the North Cascades case, considering there has historically been a road through that area, but in general, laying an access road into the wilderness eliminates the wilderness and renders it front-country. Every park needs vehicle-accessible front-country. I say they also need roadless wilderness.

If you need to control usage levels, great -- do that without cutting things off completely.

I don't know of any park that cuts off areas completely except in patently unsafe areas or seasonally in ecologically sensitive areas. Nor do I believe this is proposed anywhere. Wilderness designation does not say "humans stay out." It implores us to come and enjoy nature as some people prefer it - free from artificial intrusion. Those people own the parks too, and it seems obvious to me that wilderness and developed areas can coexist in harmony in National Parks. When a park such as Glacier has zero designated wilderness, I'd say it's patently unfair to complain about "more" area being designated. The parks are for everyone - even us kooks who enjoy wilderness.

More wilderness: less cycling opportunities. :(

I agree, some of have had to work all of our life and didn't have the time to take to explore wilderness. We all don't work for uncle sam or have a trust fund.

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