In May of this year Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a bill that
proposes officially designating 2.5 million acres of California's public
lands as wilderness. Much of these proposed "additions to the current
wilderness system" are in the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges, both
in southern and northern California. Ten years ago California's other
senator, Dianne Feinstein, sponsored and got passed a similar bill that
designated 7.7 million acres, most of it in the southern California deserts,
as wilderness. As OHV users we are still living with the legacy of
Feinstein's legislation because large areas of the desert were closed to
motorized vehicles and remain closed to this day. It is probable that, since
being designated wilderness, very few, if any, people use the desert areas
affected by the Feinstein bill.
California also already has the greatest number of acres set aside as
wilderness in the lower 48 states. So, one might reasonably conclude that
enough is enough or, perhaps, that the legacy of the Feinstein
bill--effective lock out of most citizens to the desert lands that were
designated as wilderness at that time--would be something that we would seek
not to repeat in the state at large. Well, apparently this is not the case
because here we go again with the Boxer bill.
Wilderness Designation as a Legal Classification
If you ask most laypeople what wilderness is you are likely to hear
responses along the lines that it is land that is remote, not often visited
by people, and that it has a primitive character unchanged by the activities
of man. Wilderness in the same sense as it might be described in a Jack
London novel about the Klondike gold rush era. This is a fair description
and, in the most general sense, accurate enough. However, this is not at all
what it means in a legal context and, in the area of land management and
access issues, the legal structure is of paramount importance because it
governs the uses that will be allowed on the land.
Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964. It sought to keep lands that
were "untrammeled by man" in their most pristine state, protected from
further encroachment and despoilment. Sounds like a noble endeavor and it
was at the time. There was a feeling then of a genuine need to protect those
remaining undeveloped tracts of wild land within the US for future
generations. I think we can all agree with that idea. There are places of
exceptional natural beauty that should be maintained as closely as "forever
wild" as possible. The problem today is that essentially all the land that
was wilderness in the lay sense at the time of the passing of the Act has,
in fact, already been designated as 'legal' wilderness. This is especially
true in a populated state like California. Those areas coming up for
wilderness designation today (generally and specifically as under the Boxer
proposal) are not wilderness lands at all. Because completely wild and
untamed lands are no longer available outside the current wilderness areas
the new proposed lands may well be partially "trammeled" with the
corresponding existence of roads, private inholdings, resource extraction,
and motorized and mechanized vehicle access rights.
Look at it this way; if the land under consideration were, in reality,
really wilderness in character there would be a great deal less controversy
surrounding the proposal. If nobody is there or goes there then there isn't
really anyone to take something away from. Or, as an example, there may be
jeep routes already on the land. If there are existing routes those whose
access to such routes is going to be proscribed by the wilderness
designation have something to lose. Those people should complain and
mightily so. But, if the designation process were a logical one shouldn't
the fact that the land already has jeep routes on it prevent it from being a
good candidate for wilderness designation in the first place?
Wilderness Designation History and Background:
When the Act was passed in 1964 it made certain areas "instant"
wilderness. This included the areas that had already had wilderness-like
protection. For example, as early as 1924 the naturalist, author, and Forest
Service employee Aldo Leopold had convinced the Forest Service to set aside
700,000 acres of Gila National Forest in New Mexico as the Gila Wilderness.
Small bits and pieces were further added over the intervening years such
that, at the time of the Acts passage, there were already 54 areas
designated by the Forest Service as "wild" or "wilderness". These "units",
totaling 9.1 million acres, became the initial basis of the wilderness
Also as part of the Act the FS, the NPS, and the Secretary of the Interior
were instructed to study all roadless areas encompassing more than 5000
acres for possible future inclusion in the system. After the studies were
completed the conclusions as to suitability went to the President who, in
turn, made his recommendations to Congress.
This process remains the basic avenue by which lands are suggested for
inclusion in the wilderness system—by the provisions as enumerated in the
Act (the study procedure as conducted by the Agencies) or by express
additional legislation coming directly from Congress.
Importantly, the Wilderness Act specifically states that agencies will
retain control over wilderness areas within their specific jurisdictions.
Consequently, there are wilderness areas within the lands of all three
agencies. Since the late '60s the NPS and the FS have, in actual practice,
pretty much conducted their own studies at the agencies' respective
discretion. (The NPS also has created de facto wilderness areas within the
bounds of national parks through roadless zoning). The BLM, the largest
management agency in terms of acreage administered, was long thought,
particularly by environmentalists, to be dragging its heels on wilderness
designations. With the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act
(1976) BLM was legally required and ordered to study all roadless areas on
BLM land with an eye towards suitability for wilderness.
As a result of these early and continuing studies, and the subsequent
designations, today about 100 million acres of land in the US is designated
wilderness. This is about a ten-fold increase in acreage over the "initial
units" existing prior to 1964.
Note that, in contrast to the study process incumbent upon the management
agencies, designation coming direct from Congress does not require any
preliminary study procedure. Congress typically considers wilderness
designations on a statewide basis when it acts independently of the
management agencies. While express designation by Congress without any study
is rare this is the procedure that is being followed by Boxer's bill.
The Wilderness Study Process:
Congress can make wilderness designations of its own volition but it
rarely does. The agency generated process is much more common. Therefore,
before any public lands can be wilderness, they must be subjected to study
to ascertain their suitability for wilderness designation. Originally the
need to do a wilderness study was precipitated by the very fact of the
existence of any roadless holding totaling more than 5000 acres within a
management agency's jurisdiction. But now most of the obvious areas of that
nature have already been made wilderness. So, where to find new suitable
"wildernesses"? Today suitability isn't easily determined, it typically
comes down to an agency judgment on the actual "roadlessness" of the area
coupled with a few other secondary considerations.
Simply put the wilderness study seeks to answer a very basic question;
should we make this land wilderness? A number of criteria are applied in
coming to an answer. The criteria used to determine suitability include
consideration of non-Federal property rights in the form of private
inholdings, the existence of on-going activities like ranching and mining,
and, again, most importantly, the lack of roads. Roadlessness is the key
At this point the reader may wonder why there is so much controversy about
wilderness designation within the four wheel drive community because, if
roadlessness is a key marker for inclusion in the wilderness system, then
the contrary, that extensively roaded areas cannot be made wilderness, must
also be true. An interesting twist on the law and quite logical but not
For the jeeper, here is the whole problem of wilderness in a nutshell.
First, we know that wilderness areas are closed to motorized vehicles,
second, that wilderness areas are created because they are deemed to be "roadless"
land, and, finally, because roadlessness is defined by the Dept of Interior
as the absence of improved roads. The guideline reads as follows: "areas
that otherwise qualify for wilderness will not be excluded because they
contain unimproved roads created by vehicles repeatedly traveling over the
same course...,[such roads are ones] which can and would be removed upon
designation as wilderness". Therefore, the existence of unimproved jeep
roads or trails is of no consequence—those studying the area for wilderness
suitability can completely disregard the existence of any such routes.
The Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) typically take 2-7 and sometimes more than
10 years to go from proposed to designated wilderness. Once the study is
completed and the area is designated wilderness it will be closed to
motorized vehicles, bicycles, mining, logging, some grazing, some horseback
riding, and most other uses beyond hiking. Because many of these areas are
remote, large scale, and occasionally in relatively inhospitable climates
(as in the case of the California deserts) the effective reality is that the
vast majority of the public will no longer be able to use these lands.
The Boxer Bill seeks to "patch up" the wilderness system in
California. Many of proposed additions, taken individually, are fairly
small. These proposed areas are intended to tie together existing wilderness
areas in what, to the environmentalist lobby, is a more cohesive fashion. On
the whole, of course, the additions do represent a net loss in terms of
public land acreage that is currently accessible to vehicles and bicycles
and that will become off limits after the land's status is changed to
wilderness. However, the problem is potentially more serious than that. This
is because the new additions will close some of the "gaps" between
wildernesses that were specifically left, when the existing wilderness areas
were originally designated, to allow for vehicle access. These gaps are
often not random discontinuities in the system at all but "cherrystemmed"
routes, left open to more equitably balance wilderness preservation with
access to pre-existing routes. So, not only will more land be closed to
vehicle access generally but the very routes that were left open before to
appease users will now be closed. It is a classic case of the environmental
lobby first taking the majority of the open land, telling us they would
leave the existing routes open by careful and calculated boundary drawing,
and then, not satisfied with that arrangement, coming back to take the
remaining routes too.
So, why is Boxer doing this? She may be a hardcore backcountry hiker and
survivalist but somehow I doubt it. Nor, though perhaps they send the Sierra
Club a check for $25 each year, are most of her constituents. But, in
political life perception is everything. Boxer is looking for a legacy, some
monumental legislation she can point to that will garner for her the green
lobby votes when she runs for re-election to the Senate in 2004. Because
California politics is often dominated by the leftish urban voters of San
Francisco and Los Angeles this makes sense. It worked for Feinstein when she
"preserved" the California desert. It will probably work for Boxer too.
Unfortunately, to stay in office, she will have sacrificed the interests of
all public land users but the hardiest hikers. She will also be able to say,
for the purposes of her re-election bid, that she protected the (fictional
and self-perceived) interests of the National Geographic reading armchair
adventurers who never actually set foot in the outdoors. The rest of us,
arguably those who use the land more often, will lose out in the process.
In Conclusion, A Little Editorial Spin:
The reason Boxer's bill should be defeated is that it violates a
sense of balance. In legal terms it also violates the Multiple-Use mandate
the FS and BLM must follow in making land management decisions. Greens want
ever more land locked up. But when was the last time anyone asked for
construction of a new jeep trail? We don't want more, just protection of the
rights we already have. I submit that outside of trails constructed on state
managed "open" OHV land (a tiny percent of the total public land acreage)
and a few logging roads that were clearly intended to remove timber and not
particularly useful for recreationists, not one mile of new OHV route
construction has taken place since the Multiple-Use mandate came into force
in 1976. Multiple Use? Access for All? Where?
Wilderness areas are fine where the land so designated is TRULY wilderness.
I think most of us, being outdoor oriented people, can agree with that.
There is a place for everything and there should be a place where wild land
exists without jeep trails through it. The problem is that such wild land,
undesignated as wilderness, no longer exists in California. And there is
enough wilderness protection here already. Now Boxer wants to artificially
force wilderness characteristics on to lands that do not meet the definition
of wilderness. She wants to do this for no other reason than political gain.
Unless California OHV users take action, through lobbying local
representatives and/or at the voting booth, 2.5 million acres of locked up
land will be added to the land already closed and, with that, many
pre-existing jeep routes will become history.