Wilderness Designations

The 1964 Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System.  Wilderness designation provides the most restrictive land management level for federal lands.  Like any federal land designation, wilderness requires tradeoffs between competing interests.  For example, wilderness designations promote a narrow recreation demand which makes some public areas permanently inaccessible to many Americans. There is general consensus that certain areas in the United States warrant this strictest type of protection.  However, Members of Congress from large metropolitan areas propose legislation to designate large swaths of wilderness in other Members’ districts.  These proposals rarely have the input or support of the impacted communities, and politicians often ignore the fact that the vast majority of past wilderness bills were limited in scope, and followed a collaborative process. 

To date, Congress has designated 756 wilderness areas, encompassing nearly 110 million acres, roughly the size of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.  According to the Census Bureau, there are 108 million acres of developed land in the United States.  There is more designated wilderness than developed land in this country.

The Western Caucus believes these criteria must be met before a wilderness designation is considered: 

  • Wilderness legislation should meet the definition of wilderness as laid out in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
  • Wilderness legislation should have the support of all Members of Congress who represent the area of the proposed designation.
  • Wilderness legislation should include adequate protections for private property owners and pre-existing uses.
  • Wilderness legislation should have broad community support, including from locally elected officials, as well as state and local groups representing a wide array of interests.

To meet the original intent of the Wilderness Act, we offer the following guidelines: 

  • Wilderness legislation should include a detailed map as part of the legislation that clearly and accurately describes the area covered by the proposed designation.
  • Wilderness legislation should not implicitly or explicitly allow for buffer zones to be created which would preclude economic activity normally allowed by law.
  • Wilderness legislation should include an analysis of potential impacts on pre-existing uses, access to adjacent public lands, and the ability of federal land managers to conduct fire prevention and suppression efforts and manage forest and rangeland health.
  • Efforts to designate federal wilderness should include, prior to designation, an inventory of all energy resources and suspected mineral deposits within or adjacent to the designation, to which access could be impacted by the designation.
  • Efforts to designate federal wilderness should include, prior to designation, a thorough assessment of the economic and social consequences due to the new wilderness area.
  • Efforts to designate federal wilderness should include an assessment of catastrophic wildfire potential and the ability to manage for wildlife, air and water resources.
  • Wilderness legislation should release to multiple use management any Wilderness Study Areas not proposed for wilderness designation.

No wilderness designation should claim or create new federal reserved water rights or undermine the ability of states to adjudicate and allocate water rights.

More on Wilderness Designations