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Wilderness Designations And National Parks Don't Cross Paths Often Enough


As breathtaking as Glacier National Park's landscape is, not a single acre is protected as official wildneress. NPT file photo.

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. -- President Lyndon Johnson.

"There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness. In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a pyschic neccesity. The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books...To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action."
— Robert Marshall, co-founder, The Wilderness Society

"Without wilderness, we will eventually lose the capacity to understand America. Our drive, our ruggedness, our unquenchable optimism and zeal and elan go back to the challenges of the untrammeled wilderness. Britain won its wars on the playing fields of Eton. America developed its mettle at the muddy gaps of the Cumberlands, in the swift rapids of its rivers, on the limitless reaches of its western plains, in the silent vastness of primeval forests, and in the blizzard-ridden passes of the Rockies and Coast ranges. If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was and what it might, with understanding and loving husbandry, yet become. These are islands in time — with nothing to date them on the calendar of mankind. In these areas it is as though a person were looking backward into the ages and forward untold years. Here are bits of eternity, which have a preciousness beyond all accounting."
— Harvey Broome, co-founder, The Wilderness Society

Yellowstone. Canyonlands. Voyageurs. Grand Canyon. Great Smoky Mountains. Glacier. Surprising as it is, none of those parks has so much as a single acre of officially designated wilderness. And those are only the most iconic units of the National Park System that have no official wilderness despite embracing thousands of acres of eligible acreage. Others include Big Bend National Park, Grand Teton Natifonal Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

During the past 35 years, 19 formal proposals calling for wilderness designations in national parks have been sent to Congress, according to Gary Oye, the National Park Service's chief of wilderness stewardship. Another 19 are in various stages of preparation and review, he added.

“What we’ve tried to do this year is just kind of 'daylight' that work that’s been done in the past so that the administration and Congress can have a look at it," he said.

The irony, if you will, is that from the start of the National Park Service the agency's leaders intended for parks to preserve wilderness, as John C. Miles makes clear in a new book, Wilderness in National Parks, Playground or Preserve. However, the agency would later oppose The Wilderness Act because it thought Park Service managers, not politicians, could best manage wilderness. Horace Albright, the agency's second director, "felt this way because he thought the wilderness bill would add nothing to protection in national parks and monuments and because the bill 'would unnecessarily limit the power and authority of the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service over areas that, except for exceedingly small sections, are in wilderness condition,'" writes Mr. Miles.

Of course, despite that opposition Congress passed The Wilderness Act and President Johnson signed it into law on September 3, 1964. Perhaps Mr. Albright's fears have come to fruition, for Congress has become the gatekeeper to official wilderness. No matter that Yellowstone manages its 2 million acres of wilderness-eligible acres as de facto wilderness, as does Glacier with its 927,550 eligible acres, as does the Grand Canyon with its 1.1 million eligible acres, or any of the other park units that have wilderness-eligible acres. Until Congress signs off on a wilderness bill, and the president signs it into law, those "wilderness-eligible acres" are also eligible for road building and other forms of development.

“Wilderness is like one in six acres of public land right now. One-hundred-and-nine million acres out of about 600 million," said Mr. Oye. "That’s a significant amount of land, but it’s not every portion of public land. That will be the continual debate that we have in this country, how much is enough, and which lands should be considered for wilderness?"

Much more attention has been placed on gaining wilderness designation for U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands than on Park Service lands because, explains Mr. Oye, there's a widespread perception that Park Service lands already are protected. And yet as debates over communication towers, military test ranges, and even mountain bike access demonstrate, that protection doesn't fully exist until the designation is bestowed, he said.

“There will be proposals, whether it be for mountain bike trails, or communication sites, or the military will come forward with the need for another testing range, so 'forever' is an interesting concept," he said, referring to the fact that once wilderness is designated, it is to remain so forever. "When you go back to the dialog, back in the late '50s and early '60s, it was all about not trusting the administrative designations, that there was a perceived need for law, congressional action. And now we hear the same thing.

"... You just take a look at the last eight years and you get some interesting things being proposed, either through policy or emphasis through a particular administration that you begin to wonder if an administration designation is enough? This is a good example of it, where the last administration was very supportive of mountain biking. I don’t know where this administration is.”

Wilderness designations can be contentious issues. Mining interests oppose them because they can put potential reserves out-of-bounds. Developers can't open up roads. And even mountain bikes can't negotiate them because of The Wilderness Act's prohibition against any "form of mechanical transport." Are those prohibitions so onerous, when one considers the relatively small amount of acreage affected by wilderness designations? Here's how the framers of The Wilderness Act explained their intent:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

In his book Mr. Miles points out that such notable 20th Century wilderness proponents as Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall generally agreed with Robert Sterling Yard, the Park Service's first "publicity chief," that wilderness should remain pristine and without roads, but added that "such land would serve a particular recreational approach -- primitive travel on foot or horseback without modern amenities."

But Mr. Miles also notes that, "the struggle over parks and wilderness will continue, and the National Park Service will be in the middle of it. No one can predict how this struggle will turn out, but if there are more wilderness advocates in the mold of (John) Muir, Yard, and (Wilderness Act author Howard) Zahniser in that future in alliance with park people like (early Sequoia National Park Superintendent John Roberts) White, (Park Service biologist E. Lowell) Sumner, (Assistant Park Service Director Theodore) Swem, and (Alaska Regional Director Boyd) Evison, then there will be park wilderness for many generations of Americans to enjoy."

There are big, contentious wilderness issues out there. The Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2009 would touch some 9 million acres in Utah. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would designate some 24 million acres in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington. Various proposals are in play in Colorado. There's an effort to create more wilderness in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

Until a majority in Congress gets behind these various proposals, they'll go nowhere.


This is sad. I've been saying for years that the roadless areas in GSMNP should be protected forever with wilderness now. I'm not sure what the hold-ups are. There is no further funding needed to do this, as far as I know. I was not aware of the situations in Glacier and Yellowstone but this is surprising and should also be remedied.

Readers with long memories will remember that in the years just after the Wilderness Act became law, top leaders of the National Park Service in Washington DC were not sympathetic to wilderness designation. Some had ideas of building more roads and developments to "take the pressure off" the heavily used sites. Later generations of NPS managers have had more appreciation for wilderness as an added protection against forces hostile to the parks. Early minimalist wilderness recommendations have been revisited and expanded to include most of the backcountry. Now it’s just a matter of when the congressional delegations are favorable, and when supporting citizens’ groups are ready to help. Zion and Rocky Mountain got their wilderness designation when President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act on March 30, 2009.

National Parks are for all people to enjoy, even as limited access as backcountry may be, it is still for all peple to enjoy. Wilderness eliminates all but the chosen few who can venture forth to see and enjoy it, so the chosen few are the ones wanting wilderness status. Back to elitism, aren't we?

Are you suggesting that wilderness designations be tossed out and that roads be built through these areas, Dottie? Should there be a hotel built on the promontory between the South and Southeast arms of Yellowstone Lake that you could drive to for a different view of the lake? Or perhaps a tea house should be built in the high country above Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park and a tram installed for a better view of the park?

Wilderness isn't about elitism. It's about preserving a small slice of America's landscape as near as possible to its original appearance so all generations -- today's and tomorrow's -- can appreciate them. Whether they do that in person or vicariously is beside the point. As Robert Marshall put it so well, "Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books..."

A place like Yellowstone has a whole lot of nuance to the backcountry. My understanding is that they effectively operate most backcountry areas as designated wilderness would be. However - the status as is allows for certain historical structures (which would otherwise need to be removed) to remain in place, such as the Observation Peak cabin, which I fell short of reaching.

I'm wondering what an official wilderness status would do for Grand Canyon. Would that mean the demise of Phantom Ranch as a non-conforming use? I do understand that there are some small-scale facilities that exist in designated wilderness areas. I'm familiar with Yosemite and there's a big 'ol outhouse at Little Yosemite Valley, although I'm not 100% sure if it's outside the designated wilderness. At the very least there are the High Sierra Camps (with tent cabins and small lodges) which clearly are in the wilderness boundary.

In many ways I think the way "wilderness" has been designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act has been haphazard with all sorts of exceptions thrown in. I've seen pictures of Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness in the Lake Tahoe Basin. It's clearly within a wilderness boundary by I've seen photos of it with a big dam and understand that the water is stored there for irrigation purposes. I've personally visited Gilmore Lake with what's definitely a small man-made dam. I've seen maps of several wilderness areas showing narrow corridors in some wilderness areas where existing roads were left in place or large-scale commercial interests or frontcountry campgrounds were left in place within hundreds of feet of designated wilderness.

You're absolutely correct, Dottie, that National Parks are for all people to enjoy. As one of the "people", I enjoy hiking into the roadless, structureless, machine-less backcountry. Just because you don't enjoy or are unable to explore the wilderness doesn't mean everyone shares those desires or limitations. The parks are for everyone, not just you.

What is elitist about wilderness? It requires one to leave one's car and be in a modicum of shape with a modicum of planning. Certainly the vast majority of Americans can enter wilderness areas on at least day trips of some sort. Equality of opportunity - yes. Equality of accomplishment is up to you.

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