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Assessing National Park Wilderness On The 50th Anniversary Of The Wilderness Act

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Has The Wilderness Act benefited the national parks as much as it could have?

It's been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Wilderness Act into law in 1964, but the question remains: Why has so much land within the National Park System not been designated as wilderness?

Since 1974, U.S. presidents have asked Congress to designate at least 5.7 million acres within the system as official wilderness. While Congress earlier this year did designate more than 32,500 acres in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan as wilderness, millions more acres in such notable parks as Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Big Bend, Great Smoky Mountains, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore have not received this designation, even though the National Park Service has deemed the acres worthy.

While Congress ultimately is the only political body capable of designating wilderness, the National Park Service has a reputation for not promoting critical lands for protection under the Act. Part of this criticism stems from the agency's Mission 66, an initiative envisioned by then-Park Service Director Conrad Wirth that aimed to make the parks more user friendly between 1956 and 1966 with new facilities and improved access.

Olaus Murie, a founder of The Wilderness Society, voiced strong opposition to Mission 66, which aimed to foster "accessible wilderness." One aspect of Mission 66 that Murie criticized was the road-building program that accompanied it.

Historian Richard West Sellars, in Preserving Nature in the National Parks, a History, noted the National Park Service's opposition to The Wilderness Act. "In the quest to leave certain public lands essentially unimpaired, the wilderness bill represented the antithesis of developmental programs such as Mission 66 -- and it got a cool reception from Park Service leadership."

The agency, wrote Sellars, saw the Act as "redundant" since the park lands were considered to be protected from development under the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916.

Sierra Club founder David Brower believed that the Park Service's 1957 wilderness brochure, created in connection with Mission 66, was the agency's effort to "confuse real wilderness with roadside wilderness" and "helped create a lack of clarity which suggested that additional legislative protection of truly wild areas was unnecessary."

While Sellars was recounting sentiments from more than half-a-century ago, the concern remains that the Park Service is not doing enough to promote wilderness designation.

'œHistorically, the National Park Service had been reluctant to accept Wilderness Act mandates. The result has been an institutional indifference to expanding wilderness status to roadless lands,' says Frank Buono, a former Park Service manager who now chairs the board of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.  'œIt should be noted that in recent years there has been significant progress on wilderness programs in individual parks, but it is not matched by any system-wide leadership, emphasis or agenda.'

Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, issued a release last week to belittle the Park Service's approach to marking The Wilderness Act's 50th birthday, saying the agency spent $120,000 to produce 15 videos promoting wilderness in the park system.

'œThese videos are awfully pretty but amount to little more than institutional selfies with little substantive value,' said Ruch.

For its part, PEER has created an 'œOrphaned Park Wilderness' web center that "details every stalled wilderness recommendation and assessment while prescribing specific steps to advance the wilderness footprint of each eligible park."

'œWe are celebrating the Wilderness Act'™s half-century by highlighting its still significantly unmet potential," said Ruch.

Part of PEER's Orphaned Park Wilderness site notes that down through the years Park Service managers have developed proposals that recognized more than 19 million acres as worthy of wilderness designation, but never forwarded those proposals to either the Interior secretary, the president, or Congress. Those proposals include consideration of 1.1 million acres in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, 125,000 acres at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, and nearly 3,000 acres at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina.

PEER also created a park-by-park listing of "all legislative and administrative actions regarding wilderness," a voluminous document that notes, for instance, that while a key vision for Cape Hatteras National Seashore was creation of a "primitive wilderness" setting, the Park Service has never formally studied wilderness quality lands in the seashore, which was authorized in 1937.

Part of the problem at Cape Hatteras, the Park Service acknowledged in 2008 in a history of the seashore, was nature. Another was human access and recreation.

Well before the end of Mission 66, NPS officials understood that the beach management situation they faced was dire. As park naturalist Verde Watson titled the beach erosion control photo section of the 1957-58 annual reports, it was "Man against the Sea." The Park Service was waging a fight against a fundamental force of nature, but what was not quite as crisply understand was the futile nature of that struggle and how a commitment to preserve a "primitive wilderness" had been transformed into a commitment to protect human-made structures using techniques that actually undermined the preservation of natural beaches.

To mark the Act's anniversary, the National Park Service is:

* Participating in a panel discussion during D.C. Wilderness Week (September 13-18) about the future of wilderness for the National Wilderness Preservation System during a day with stakeholders and partner organizations at the Pew Charitable Trusts Office. 

* Attending a reception at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum today where attendees will celebrate the winners of the public wilderness photography contest on the opening day of the exhibit.

* The agency's Denver regional office is hosting an interagency panel today about the importance of wilderness and the role of partnership in fostering wilderness stewardship. Interactive activities, exhibit displays, and presentations from partner organizations will also be offered for attendees.

* Next month, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis will participate in the National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque, the culminating and single largest national event for the 50th anniversary. 

Around the park system, the following activities are planned:

* Canyonlands National Park, Utah: 'œWalking with Thoreau' Project. A kick-off event in Moab will feature a public lecture about Thoreau and his writings. Over the course of four weekends, the park is offering free transportation from town to the park for guided walks, inspired by Thoreau, into the park'™s recommended wilderness areas. Participants will write, as Thoreau did, about their wilderness experience. Reflections will be published electronically and shared through social media.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: Wilderness 50th Speaking Event. The park is hosting two speakers to discuss the importance of wilderness to audiences at the Grand Canyon School (where park-based students attend) and during an evening program for the public.

Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi: 'œWilderness and You' Project. The park is providing transportation from town to park and supplying participants with camping gear to partake in a facilitated 3-day wilderness experience on Horn Island. This will likely be a first-time wilderness experience for most participants.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan" 'œWild Stewards '“ Connecting Youth to a Wilderness Archipelago Project.' The park is implementing a program, modeled after the Junior Ranger Program, to equip wilderness youth visitors (ages 13-17) with activity booklets that engender thought and discussion about wilderness throughout the visit. Historically, wilderness users receive little to no formal contact with the park about wilderness due to the remote nature of the wilderness area relative to visitor infrastructure locations.

Joshua Tree National Park, California: Interactive Interpretive Exhibit on Display. The park has developed an interactive exhibit that asks the question, 'œWhat does wilderness mean to you?' The exhibit invites visitors to share their personal connections to wilderness via mounted notebook or iPad and can be shared, reviewed, and commented on by other visitors. Responses will be used as content for an upcoming video podcast, which will be available on the park website.

For a full list of additional celebration activities, see this site.


Today should be a national holiday.... or national field trip day with kids from around the country being bussed into wilderness areas to go on an ecology adventure.

Regardless, this is a great document from PEER.  Glad you posted it, and I hope that more National Parks decide to upgrade from "managed as wilderness" to "designated wilderness" in the future, and that we can get a congress to enact legislation to do just that.  The importance of wilderness to enhance and propegate the biorhythms of the Earth is necessary for life on this planet, and i'd hate to see more front country roads paved into our National Park lands so that more creatures can be ran over or displaced..

Also, hopefully, i'm not the only one on this site that took the time to look through it.

We already have too much Wilderness.  The Act is too restrictive as is, and that probably explains why there is so much opposition every time a new parcel of land gets proposed.  Maybe if the Wildernuts would get a clue and be more amenable to changes in the Act, they'd get more done.  Obviously, this won't happen, because Wilderness is now a new Age religion with all the fanaticism that goes with it.

I think it's more about our society becoming lazier as time goes on.  They want easy access, and to not earn their way into a place.  Effortless, and without much thought - that's the New Aged 'Murican' way.

And there has always been opposition to anything in regards to public lands. They could announce they found a forest of money trees and are going to allow people to harvest some of the bucks, and there would be opposition to it, while far righties would call for cutting them down to make an even quicker buck since the dollars take too long to mature every season..

In Memory of former Supt. Paul Fritz:


Sit sometime in the middle of the Black Flow of Craters of the Moon. Though only three miles from a paved road, you will be a half day's journey into the wilderness. And a century into the past. The mood is unmistakably wild and remote. It is like being in a motionless black ocean. [61]

The passage of the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964 mandated that all National Park Service sites with five thousand or more contiguous roadless acres be studied for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. The act stipulated a ten-year review period; Craters of the Moon's study was begun and completed in 1965, and its wilderness established in 1970. The first Pacific Northwest Region park unit to be designated as wilderness, the monument, along with Petrified Forest National Park, was the also the first NPS unit to be granted the status by Congress. Relatively "issue" free in the public sector, the creation of the area's wilderness caused some internal conflicts within the Park Service itself. Because of this and the honor of being "first," the wilderness area's establishment deserves special attention.

In May 1965, Superintendent Roger Contor, joined by a small master plan team, studied a 42,600-acre roadless area in the monument for wilderness classification. The group completed the study in ten days, and their preliminary proposal determined that 41,475 acres were suitable for wilderness; after the Washington office reviewed the proposal, it decreased the acreage to 40,800, altering boundaries to conform with survey points rather than natural features. The proposed volcanic wilderness comprised approximately 80 percent of the monument's land base, and 96 percent of the area studied. All of it lay south of U.S. Highway 20-26-93A, excluding the semi-developed zone of roads, trails, and administrative facilities in the monument's northwestern corner. To name the area, Contor chose a Shoshoni term, Tu'Timbaba, or "Black Rock Overpass," referring to the thousand feet the lava landscape rises above adjacent valleys. [62]

Justifying the reasons for wilderness classification, the superintendent wrote of the area's unique qualities; it offered

geologic curiosities, archeological structures and sites, a surprisingly rich fauna, and vegetative cover of special importance to science. The setting is fresh and clean. Because access is limited to hikers, and because there are no attractions which lack counterparts in the more accessible parts of the Monument, human use has been scant.

This was, he recognized, not what people pictured as traditional wilderness; there was "nothing here to attract the mountaineer, a thirty day pack trip party, or a fisherman." Yet Contor believed that the area's "appreciation must rest on other things." It "remains the most interesting and least disturbed segment of the entire Snake River Plain. Those who spend time here will soon feel its lonely and unusual charm." [63]

Following the wilderness proposal was a public hearing, as required by the Wilderness Act. Held on September 19, 1966 at Arco, Idaho, the meeting itself was rather sedate; fifteen people attended, among them Park Service and conservation group representatives. Five of these individuals gave oral statements, and a total of forty-eight letters were received from private parties, local, state, and federal agencies. In general, everyone favored the agency's wilderness proposal. No one, for instance, objected to the concept of wilderness; like Contor they expressed an affinity for the area's qualities of beauty, science, and isolation. Nor did anyone urge a reduction in the proposed area's size. Rather, those few who did criticize the proposal wanted more land added to the wilderness area. [64]

Groups such as the Sierra Club, the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, the National Parks Association, the Mountaineers, and the Wilderness Society suggested inward expansion, pressing closure to the developed area of the monument. On the high end of the scale, the National Parks Association proposed four separate wilderness areas south of the highway, totaling 49,800 acres, excluding the headquarters facilities and road corridors. And on the low end of the scale, the Wilderness Society recommended a small boundary adjustment to include the Caves and Natural Bridge. While the different proposals varied on size, they shared a common trait in that they did not contest the planned road extension around Big Cinder Butte. [65]

In defending its proposal, the Park Service explained that it designed the wilderness boundaries to retain access to the volcanic features along the loop drive, and to provide a half to a mile wide buffer to avoid the "influences from U.S. Highway 20-26-93A and the existing and proposed visitor use areas southeast of the highway." By way of compromise, the agency's August 1967 proposal offered a series of revisions to the original boundaries. On the one hand, reflecting some but not all suggestions, the adjustments added a total of 1,945 acres. These extended the proposed boundary to embrace the Natural Bridge and more portions of the North Crater Lava and Serrate Lava Flows; the Black Lava Flow, Coyote and Crescent Buttes, and additional sections of the Big Crater and Blue Dragon Lava Flows. On the other hand, two deletions of 1,960 acres comprised more acreage than did the additions. One subtracted a small amount, eighty acres, southwest of Inferno Cone; the other removed a large amount to provide a sixteenth of a mile administrative buffer between wilderness and monument boundary. [66]

The 1967 proposal satisfied most public concerns for including key sites in the monument's internal section, as well as the administrative practicality of drawing boundaries along easily distinguished grid patterns, as opposed to the diagonal shapes of the original recommendation. In total acreage, 40,785, the latest proposal differed little from its earlier version.

As for other additions, the Park Service denied these for pragmatic as well as development reasons. Most features proposed for wilderness addition, for instance, were located along or near the loop drive and trails, and were among the monument's primary attractions. Here the majority of the monument's 200,000 annual visitors experienced the outstanding geologic features. Thus, to those proposals requesting that areas west of the Natural Bridge and Caves be classified as wilderness, the Park Service stated that anticipated visitor volumes would require "highly developed trails...[the] minimum...sanitary facilities, and interpretive devices," for visitor health and safety as well as the "protection of natural features." Similarly, proposals that singled out Inferno Cone and Big Cinder Butte for wilderness protection were characterized by the Service as small islands, 270 and one thousand acres respectively, within the existing road system and its proposed additions. As "major visitor attractions" they should remain outside wilderness; their small size meant that they could not "offer significant or outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation as would be characteristic of a wilderness." [67]

In terms of wilderness designation, Big Cinder Butte assumed an important role. Because the monument's visitation and administrative infrastructure were confined to the northwestern corner, the Park Service believed that future growth would need outlets, and as shown in the 1966 master plan, the Service planned to extend the road system around Big Cinder Butte. [68] As Roger Contor noted, his master plan and wilderness proposal omitted the butte for future possibilities; "putting everything in wilderness would tie the hands of future managers. We felt we should leave the option open for some limited expansion of frontcountry facilities." At some point, windshield tourists might enjoy a new perspective on monument landscapes. Excluding Big Cinder Butte from wilderness, then, "gave a little elbow room," and, as Contor asserted, "a modicum of roadside scenery might reduce their [visitors'] passion for self entertainment through vandalism or other unacceptable behavior." More importantly, perhaps, was that he was dealing with "firsts." Better to add than to subtract from wilderness, and refrain from setting a bad Park Service precedent should expansion be necessary. For that matter, it was never certain that the road would be built. [69] Even so, this belief later provided a point of internal contention.

Legislation for the monument's wilderness commenced the following year. In March 29, 1968, the Department of the Interior submitted draft legislation to the president for the creation of the Craters of the Moon wilderness, and sent the same material to Idaho Senator Frank Church, member of the Senate Interior Committee, seeking his sponsorship. [70] One year later, April 1, 1969, Church introduced the Department of the Interior (NPS) proposal as S. Bill 1732. In his oration to the Senate, Church justified the legislation by describing the monument's astonishing moon-like beauty, a beauty with relevance to the nation. That same year astronauts planned to walk on a similar lunar landscape, and for this reason, wilderness designation was appropriate. And it was all the more imperative since the drawing power of this national event would lure thousands more tourists to the monument and jeopardize its wilderness quality. [71] On June 15, the bill passed the Senate.

The bill followed a different path in the House. On March 3, 1970, it was introduced and referred to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, where it died. A month later, Idaho Congressmen Orval Hansen and James McClure introduced two wilderness bills, H.R. 16821, which was the NPS administrative proposal, and H.R. 16822, which called for the addition of more lands including Big Cinder Butte, for a total of 43,243 acres. [72]

The latter legislation represented the influence of Superintendent Paul Fritz. Fritz, who succeeded Contor in the fall of 1966, disagreed with the accepted master plan and wilderness proposal. In particular, Fritz believed after walking the proposed boundary that the planned road addition encircling Big Cinder Butte was a mistake. [73]

The main attraction of the new road was the tree molds of Trench Mortar Flat, the only features not accessible by car. While this extension would complete the motorist tour of the monument, preservation of these fragile lava formations outweighed the importance of visitor access. In a December 10, 1966 memorandum Fritz requested a new master plan study to enlarge the wilderness boundary to include Big Cinder Butte and prevent further development. Assistant Director of Cooperative Activities, Theodor R. Swem, rejected the superintendent's proposition. No reason warranted revision of the recent master plan; it had been agreed to at all levels of the administration. And more importantly, "the plan provides a reasonable balance between wilderness and non-wilderness use and it also provides opportunities for increased and improved interpretation of the area." He urged Regional Director John Rutter to bear this in mind in order to "overcome the difficulties" posed by Fritz's suggestion. After learning that his superiors would not entertain any boundary changes, the superintendent reluctantly agreed to the agency's proposal. [74]

Despite his original agreement, Fritz countered the Service's plans by circumventing administrative channels to win approval of his wilderness proposal. Beginning in 1967, he gained support from local communities and environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, who had originally expressed their desire to add more lands to the Craters of the Moon wilderness. These interest groups then lobbied the Park Service and congressional representatives, and in Congressmen Hansen and McClure found sponsors for the new proposal. [75]

The Park Service in spite of Fritz's influence stood behind its original proposal passed by the Senate. Acting Secretary of the Interior Fred J. Russell expressed the Service's position to Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall, chairman House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, in a June 25, 1970 letter. In principle, the Park Service determined that development was necessary to meet the monument's mission and to accommodate rising visitation. The road encircling the butte

would disperse visitors to relieve congestion on the present road system; such congestion is expected to become critical in future years. Exhibits along the road would interpret such features as tree molds, lava tubes, fissures, ecology and plant succession. Visitors unable to make long hiking trips would have access to all of the major types of volcanic features on this self-guiding interpretive road.

Hence, wilderness designation for Big Cinder Butte would preclude both this improvement and the presentation of the monument's full array of volcanic phenomena to the motoring public. [76]

Unfortunate for the Service and fortunate for Fritz and supporters of the Big Cinder Butte addition, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs concluded in their favor. H.R. 19007, an omnibus wilderness bill introduced on August 13, 1970, provided for an enlarged Craters of the Moon wilderness of 43,243 acres. [77] Commenting on the amended bill in a September 9 report, the committee stated that the addition of "this 2,243 acres of land would make a meaningful contribution to the wilderness area and that it would not unduly interfere with public use and enjoyment of the national monument." [78] The full House passed the bill on September 21, 1970. The Senate concurred with the House in S. 3014 on October 12, and President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law on October 23, 1970. [79]

In the end, the Park Service lost with its proposal, but won by gaining the first wilderness in the System. Compared to the larger parks, the Craters of the Moon proposal lacked high-profile controversy, and buried in a large bill, the discrepancy over two thousand acres lost some of its importance. The new Craters of the Moon Wilderness, as it was called, [80] bore the stamp of Superintendent Paul Fritz, who spoke out against his own agency for the protection of monument resources. Yet the area also owed its existence to individuals, such as Roger Contor, who recognized the volcanic environment's wilderness caliber.

Wilderness Proposal MapThe 1967 wilderness proposal. The lighter screen-tone represents the Big Cinder Butte addition that was attached to the final bill in 1970.

Gary, so how is sitting on a horse in the middle of a pack train, drinking beer, earning your way?  Recreation modes have changed, and the Wilderness proponents are still clinging to a mid 19th century mode of travel, as if Wilderness was magically created then...  I predict that it will evolve, but it'll take another generation or two for it to happen.

I am all for Wilderness designation - the more the better. Wilderness designation is much more restrictive than National Park designation.

We spent a couple of days this spring in the wilderness area of Craters of the Moon.  It was amazingly peaceful when compared to the utter chaos and ado of the developed area. Well, we and a couple thousand sheep. They got pretty loud but, somehow, we didn't mind so much.


No one is saying that it's magic.  What the act does is protect resources from extractive industries that will mar it.  Once again, you seem to fail to understand what the wilderness act does.  You choose the highway of the lazy thinker, obviously.

This is what you want :

Yep, Zebbies vision of what should be a "wilderness"..  If you look closely, there might be one tree way out in the distance that still lives in this mad max looking place.

I used to live near the Craters wilderness, and would head out into the wilderness during the wildflower bloom.  It is quite the place, and having it to yourself was almost a given.  Also, many of those Kipukas where the lava surrounded the hills, left remnants of what the Snake River Plain used to look like.  These areas are hard to reach (but not impossible), because you have to cross, and climb over all that sharp lava fields for a few miles all cross country, but they still harbor intact plant communities that have been wiped from other areas because of sheep and cattle grazing.  But, hey, the wilderness act is useless... who cares about that stuff right?  It would all be better as concrete, and that lava should be mined and crushed and used for lava stone in peoples gardens acording to the subjugators.

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