The Wilderness Visitor: Necessary Nuisance or Raison d’etre?

First slide of powerpoint


The attached Powerpoint Chojnacky–NWSA Wilderness Presentation 10-25-19  includes complete notes on the slides by the authors.  This post is longer than usual, as it involves original material. Many thanks to Cindy and Dave for posting here!

The PowerPoint and notes are a presentation we did October 25 at the National Wilderness Stewardship Association (NWSA) in Bend, OR—an ecletic mix of agency wilderness managers, researchers, volunteer stewards (such as “friends” groups interested in trail maintenance for a particular wilderness) and other non-government entities.

Our presentation was based on observations in hiking 60 wilderness areas (including a few other protected designations) in 11 states over past seven years. We found, oddly, that much wilderness is underutilized and unknown—while a few areas with good trails, good information or well-known features are overused and get the most management attention.

I  The Wilderness Act- Ends and Means

Policy analysis focused on “legislative intent”—what did Congress intend? Readers can follow my analysis of the Act’s STATEMENT OF POLICY SECTION 2 in more detail in the PowerPoint notes. In paraphrasing 2 (a)—the Act states an intent to “secure for the American people…the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” and to designate wilderness areas which “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people.” Therefore, the purpose for wilderness is people’s use and enjoyment—e.g. wilderness experience.

The task of management agencies is also spelled out: “these shall be administered in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness…” Unimpaired could be called wilderness quality. “In such manner” is the job of wilderness administration with wilderness quality the means for achieving the Act’s purpose or end: people’s use and enjoyment of wilderness (experience).  Much wilderness research, management and activism have focused on wilderness quality—and particular overused areas have received the most study and management concern. We concluded that focus only on wilderness quality—the means—if ignoring the overall purpose or end—wilderness experience—could  treat the wilderness visitor as a threat or nuisance.

The Act’s most repeated word is “use” (32x). SECTION 4 on USE OF WILDERNES AREAS starts with a long paragraph (a) aimed to ensure that wilderness management agencies retain their original mission and authorities along with the new task (b) of “preserving the wilderness character of the area.” This paragraph lists six “public purpose uses”: four we labeled experience (recreational, scenic, educational and historical) and two quality (scientific and conservation).

SECTION 4 (c) lists 10 PROHIBITED USES—probably well known to all—including commercial enterprise, roads, motorized equipment and mechanical transport. An exemption—”except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act”—might be the basis for Forest Service strict “minimum tool” regulations for wilderness management. For example, primitive tools such as cross-cut saws were probably appropriate for trail work in the first decades after the Act was passed because national forest wilderness included a vast legacy trail system that was built for transportation with stock that was still being regularly used for forest management. But today most Forest Service Guard Stations are closed; and long gone most stock and skilled field personnel that regularly cleared trails in course of duty. In addition, 1960-1990 was an era of relatively stable weather, small fires and minimal trail damage. Perhaps we should  relook at the Act’s exemption for select use of chainsaws in some areas where 21st century climate-related mega-fires, unprecedented avalanches, and other causes of tree mortality have blocked many trail miles with downfall—if public access is within the Act’s purpose.

Interestingly, the largest “use” word tally (12) is under SPECIAL PROVISIONS (d) is preexisting “prohibited” uses that may be exempted such as grazing, fly-in airstrips, commercial outfitter camps and so forth. The Wilderness Act appears to be a bold experiment in land use management to benefit the public with rather broad exemptions—not a mandate for rarely-visited, off-limits sanctuaries. Perhaps these are needed, but we will need a new law to do this.

II. Wilderness Experience Sample (many great photos of the authors’ experiences are in the Powerpoint)

Finally we attempted to quantify our own wilderness experience in 309 days of hiking about 3,339 miles in 60 wilderness areas in Eastern and Western states—spanning conifer forest, hardwood forest, desert and seashore. We identified six barriers to our experience and then evaluated each wilderness as to which barrier(s) severely impacted our experience—e.g. we would not repeat the trip for “enjoyment.” All but nine areas had at least one show-stopper barrier—most due to trail design or maintenance issues. We closed our presentation with a few ideas on shifting focus to visitor-focused management mainly in brainstorming mode.

III. Studying, Monitoring and Managing Wilderness Experience

Our analysis of words and wilderness experience are somewhat subjective because we began this project with a sense that our wilderness experience had been declining in recent years but were not sure why (furthermore, attempts to fund systematic studies of emerging enviromental issues in wilderness were met with disinterest; so we decided to just “go to the wilderness”). We’d love to see more systematic study of wilderness experience over the entire National Wilderness Preservation System. But, as one speaker pointed out at the NWSA meeting: much funding is spent on getting more wilderness acreage while only “pennies” are spent, relatively, on wilderness stewardship—let alone evaluating the wilderness experience.

Ironically, in the same sentence on wilderness in the 1964 Act SECTION 2. (a) that mandates “the preservation of their wilderness character” is also a mandate for “gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness”—a type of report we have never seen. Instead “wilderness character monitoring” seems to be sole emphasis of agencies’ wilderness reporting—even though the Act does not mandate such a report. Nor is the science of wilderness character monitoring developed to the point where consistent indicators (and electronic protocol) would allow scaling up information to evaluate the National Wilderness Preservation System.                                      

28 thoughts on “The Wilderness Visitor: Necessary Nuisance or Raison d’etre?”

  1. Cindy and Dave, it seems like NVUM provides some info about wilderness visitor experiences.. what do you think the FS is missing from using that information?

  2. Wow, that is a pretty damning repudiation of the folks who like to say Wilderness areas exist solely to benefit animals and human enjoyment is at most a minor secondary factor that should yield to environmental protection and preservation.

    Interesting they presented that in Oregon, which has the most extreme restrictions on wilderness visitation in the nation. I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that limiting total wilderness visitors to a couple dozen people a day like they have done with several Wilderness areas in Oregon is contrary to the Wilderness Act’s mandate to manage these areas for the use and enjoyment of the American people.

    I’m kind of curious now exactly when Wilderness came to be viewed as synonymous with “nature preserve” or “wildlife sanctuary” and the element of human enjoyment was so deprioritized as to be largely forgotten.

    • Wilderness areas in OR do have some extreme restrictions, including the new permit requirements for even day use starting in 2020.

      In that case it is partly driven by the growth of Bend, proximity to Portland, and social media geotagging like on Instagram. Tough to start charging people for something like a day hike in wilderness, and the impact it will have to locals. If you have been on South Sister or Broken Top, you also know the impacts from weekend and holiday crowds are real.

      • Certainly cannot disagree on this one. At Bend meeting, the Deschutes-Willamette team pointed out a 500% increase in use of some trailheads in Sisters Wilderness over past 5 years. Had to close one lake to camping because it smelled like a sewer. And what Sharon said is correct–a VisitBend repr even noted the tourism/ ec development community recognizes its role in bringing more people to enjoy natural resources of area–and is trying to invest in trails, infrastructure and some dispersion of use. Use limits are probably necessary in areas like this. I asked at the meeting about potentially dispersing some visitors to lesser used trails like the adjacent Old Cascades system but one local said they had such a campaign and discovered “people want rock and flowers.” BTW we didn’t get a lot of flack from wilderness managers–the beseiged ones from Sisters & Maroon Bells very concerned about visitor but overwhelmed.
        Definitely must address overused areas & I don’t have a magic bandaid for this one. Just also think we need to look at whole national wilderness preservation system and its use. Obviously not something an overwhelmed local manager can address!

  3. The Powerpoint doesn’t contain much information; it’s a very basic overview. But it seems correct to me, based on my own experience. I mentally divide Wilderness areas into:

    1. Overrun and loved to death (e.g., Indian Peaks, Bridger).

    2. Would be fun to visit had their trails not been abandoned by the Forest Service, either through its own lack of maintenance or its absurd rule against volunteers using chainsaws (many).

    3. Desolate or overgrown patches or expanses of land in the middle of nowhere and that no one has ever heard of (e.g., Alta Toquima).

    4. Despoiled to a degree by cattle and/or packtrains (e.g., Pasayten, Bridger, Hoover, and probably many more).

    5. Nice Wildernesses! There are some (e.g., Thousand Lakes).

    I was impressed with the recent Wilderness Watch position paper on the disaster that cattle (and I guess sheep) grazing has been for Wilderness.

    • I think the problem with eliminating grazing in some places is that the deal was done when the Wilderness was established. There is a certain component of “when is a deal not a deal” involved. So I don’t know exactly how grazing leases could be retired, but I’m sure someone out there has experience with that.

      As for outfitters, last summer I was quoted $500 a day. Which is a great deal cheaper than owning a horse – for a three day trip. So you could actually argue that outfitters enable folks to access the Wilderness using otherwise OK modes of transportation without owning them. Which actually allows people with less money to have that experience.

      • Hi, Sharon — Thank you as always for providing this excellent forum. I would say that even $500 a day isn’t particularly accessible to Joe and Betty Sixpack of Saginaw, Michigan. I see ads in expensive media for Wilderness pack outfitter trips and I suspect it’s the well-heeled who fly out from New York and Chicago to go on them.

        But, leaving aside the affordability question, my experience is that pack outfitters do a lot of damage. Also, I bet they either have lobbied or will lobby against mountain biking in Wilderness. Any interference with their business model they are not likely to welcome, including additional types of human-powered visitors who could get in the way of their guests’ serene passage through the unfortunately not-so-untrammeled Wilderness areas they muck up!

  4. While I can see the argument for “use” not being limited to a very few people a day, indeed I believe such measures to be elitist and discriminatory, I don’t see how the building and maintaining of backpacking manicured trails is compatible with wilderness characteristics. For more than 10,000 years humans used these areas without the benefit of chainsaws or federal government maintenance, I’d think 21st century humans would benefit from upping their wilderness travel skill set rather than demanding wilderness be brought down to their abilities. Certainly a Wilderness doesn’t have to be so overvisited that it has severe restrictions, such as the Indian Peaks Wilderness, to be considered of use for recreation.

    Remote and seldom visited but open to all, sounds more like what the original intent of the act was. I’d also think that the original exemptions carved out to get the legislation done, would be slowly eliminated as their use becomes decreases. Cattle grazing is decreasing across the west, sheep are now known to spread disease, and certainly outfitters at over a thousand dollars per day per tourist is a commercial use whose time has maybe come. Signage and bridges also seem like permanent man made features.

  5. Howdy. I don’t think we are advocating “building manicured trails” but stewarding the vast trail systems we have particularly on national forests. It seems a reasonable way to disperse rather than over concentrate use on a few trammeled areas. Humans indeed lived outdoors for thousands of years but they did create access routes which are basis of many of our trails. If you hike much you discover that wildlife use and at some level “maintain” trails. Furthermore in stewarding our limited wilderness resource, it makes sense to keep traffic on our legacy trails and perhaps improve these with connector routes to create greater access to wilderness. (Instead of the proliferation of social trails in sensitive popular alpine lake basins, “trailless” canyon country, open meadows etc.) In visiting 60 wilderness areas we observed something we called “solitude trails inverse.” People go where there are good trails and information. Whether we think this should be or not.

    • I’ve observed this plenty of places in Colorado as well. I was a little disappointed this study didn’t include any visits to Wilderness areas in Colorado since I would have loved to hear the authors’ thoughts on them. The biggest contrast I’ve seen is between the heavily visited Indian Peaks Wilderness (which others have already mentioned) and the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

      Indian Peaks is of course the most visited wilderness area in Colorado since it’s the closest to Denver and Boulder. It has numerous well-maintained trails, and is overall fairly well managed. There is a permit system for backpacking, but no legal limitations on day hikers. The Forest Service seems to be relying on the extremely scarce parking at trailheads to control the number of day hikers.

      Eagles Nest I’ve heard used to be very popular 30 or 40 years ago, but has since fallen into neglect and many of the trails in it are barely passable, covered with downed logs and extremely difficult to navigate. Road access is extremely poor, with most trailheads a long way from any destinations in the wilderness. Though it is between Dillon and Vail, two of the most popular mountain towns for recreation, hardly anybody visits most of it.

      The one neighboring area that used to have good access north of Vail (Spraddle Creek) had 90% of its roads closed in the last travel management process and is now being proposed as a wilderness expansion under the CORE Act. It really makes me question, what is the purpose of expanding the Eagles Nest Wilderness if hardly anyone visits it already? All it does is take away an area that was formerly popular for motorized dispersed camping (and still is, actually, because most people don’t realize the roads in the area that will soon become wilderness are closed). Other than the closed roads, there are no trails to speak of in that area, and there will be no benefit to human use by making that wilderness. It’s just making more wilderness for wilderness’ sake.

      • Howdy Patrick, point of clarification: our ‘raisin de entre” presentation was not based on a study per se but on spouse/ hiking partner David and my observations visiting 60 Wilderness areas in 11 states. We would love to fund real visitor experience / use research but I think anyone in wilderness research would tell you such funding is about nonexistent. Selection of areas more opportunistic than systematic. We were living in Virginia when decided to visit all wilderness in state, next decided to revisit places we have hiked during careers around country. Hence SW first where went to school, next Oregon & God willing, Colorado in 2021!

  6. One other note–re Sharon’s comment on grazing. I was looking up some background on the Gila Wilderness which we recently visited and noted again how strongly Congress has stated its intent that grazing SHALL be maintained in wilderness. On this one, I totally agree with Wilderness Watch. In visiting wilderness throughout west, grazing appears to be a use legally allowed in the Wilderness Act (Special Provisions) and almost demanded by Congress, yet the devastating impacts on wilderness character and visitor experience seem to not be documented at all. We are seeing livestock reductions in many of our favorite wilderness areas (Superstitions and Mazatzals for instance) but does seem to be more factor of economics rather than policy or agency regulations. One other neglected area of study re. range management is how much initial damage the big cattle drives and sheep herds of the 19th century did to the entire western land base.

  7. Since a few comments have mentioned the Wilderness Watch paper on grazing in Wilderness, here’s the link:

    Livestock are authorized to graze over a quarter of the 52 million acres of protected wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Due to grazing language in the Wilderness Act and its 1980s-era corollary, the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, grazing has been occurring in otherwise-undomesticated wilderness areas for over half a century. Grazing damages wilderness, yet at one-tenth of a percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States, grazing in wilderness hardly contributes to the U.S. livestock industry. This whitepaper reviews the history of livestock grazing in wilderness areas. It includes a brief discussion of the extent of livestock grazing that occurs in wilderness and grazing’s harmful impact on wilderness land and federal agency budgets. It concludes with recommendations to retiring grazing permits in order to protect wilderness for wildlife, healthy ecosystems, and future generations.

    I. Introduction: Livestock Does Not Belong in Wilderness
    In the Wilderness Act, Congress exempted some activities that the Act would otherwise bar to allow preexisting, non-conforming activities to continue under some circumstances. Grazing constitutes one of the more troublesome of these activities due to its damaging effect on wilderness lands and wilderness character.

    II. History of Grazing Law and Policy in Wilderness
    In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The provision allowing grazing in the Wilderness Act is an exception to the general premise of the Act, which directs agencies to manage wilderness areas to preserve their wilderness character and natural conditions.

    A. History of Grazing on Public Land
    Livestock grazing was a primary use of federal public lands from 1930 to 1960, but public use began to change in the mid-1960s, leading to the passage of the Wilderness Act and the application of a conservation ethos to the management of public lands.

    B. Grazing and the Wilderness Act
    The first draft of the wilderness bill explicitly forbade grazing in wilderness, yet grazing language was added in subsequent drafts of the bill to placate the politically powerful livestock industry in the American West.

    C. The Congressional Grazing Guidelines
    In 1980, Congress created what has since become known as the Congressional Grazing Guidelines in the form of House Report 96-617, which permit activities in wilderness – vehicles, motorized equipment, development – meant to facilitate grazing, but which were not contemplated in the Wilderness Act.

    III. Impacts on Wilderness and Wilderness Character
    Grazing causes substantial harm to wilderness ecosystems and recreational aesthetics, and is fundamentally at odds with the Wilderness Act’s mandate to keep “the earth and its community of life […] untrammeled by man.”

    IV. Extent of Grazing in the National Wilderness Preservation System
    Livestock actively graze about 10 million acres of the 52.4 million acres of wilderness in the lower 48 states. Most of the grazing in wilderness areas takes place in arid or semiarid climates, areas particularly unsuited to grazing. Wilderness areas are unsuited to grazing, yet they are extraordinarily important for biodiversity, scientific study, recreation, and the preservation of wildness.

    V. Grazing Economics
    The federal grazing program in wilderness operates at a loss to the U.S. Treasury. In addition to monetary costs, grazing in wilderness has indirect and intangible environmental costs, including long-term damage to streams, negative impacts on native grassland ecosystems, losses of endangered species, and degradation of the wilderness visitor experience.

    VI. Recommendations: Toward a Livestock Free Wilderness System
    The most expedient and effective way to reduce and eventually eliminate the destructive impacts of grazing in wilderness is via Congressional action.

    A. Congressional Action
    There are many possible avenues Congress could take to end grazing in wilderness, but the most effective and equitable approach is to automatically retire a wilderness grazing permit that is waived by the permittee, and to close any currently vacant allotments in wilderness to grazing. Additionally, Congress should amend the CGG to reduce the impacts associated with grazing in wilderness.

    B. Agency Action
    The first and easiest method for land management agencies to reduce grazing in wilderness is to close all vacant grazing allotments in order to protect ecological and recreational values. Moreover, federal land management agencies have the authority to formally determine that an area in question is no longer chiefly valuable for grazing, a necessary precursor to clearing the way for the permanent retirement of the associated lease.

    VII. Conclusion
    The difficulty in finding effective solutions to the growing problem of grazing in wilderness signifies that grazing in wilderness should be reconsidered. Since grazing is inherently contrary to the concept of wilderness, and since removal of grazing from wilderness lands will present only minor impacts to the livestock industry as a whole, the most logical conclusion is that it should be phased out or eliminated, and not be allowed to continue in these special areas.

    • Under VI.B. (agency action), it seems to me that forest planning is where the agency would need to address the suitability of a wilderness for grazing, which would provide the basis for retiring a grazing permit. I don’t recall this coming up, but do you know if it’s been proposed by the public anywhere and what the Forest Service response was?

      • Hi Jon,

        I reached out to a board member of Wilderness Watch who offered up this information:

        Technically, the forest plan should address suitability of grazing, but it is not a hard and fast requirement. Often, the agency will only do a timber suitability analysis and if there is any suitability analysis for grazing, it is usually cursory. Here is what the current planning regs say about the issue which is in line with what I just said:

        (v) Suitability of lands. Specific lands within a plan area will be identified as suitable for various multiple uses or activities based on the desired conditions applicable to those lands. The plan will also identify lands within the plan area as not suitable for uses that are not compatible with desired conditions for those lands. The suitability of lands need not be identified for every use or activity. Suitability identifications may be made after consideration of historic uses and of issues that have arisen in the planning process. Every plan must identify those lands that are not suitable for timber production (§ 219.11).


        (4) Suitability. A project or activity would occur in an area:(i) That the plan identifies as suitable for that type of project or activity; or (ii) For which the plan is silent with respect to its suitability for that type of project or activity.

  8. Totally agree. Thanks Matthew. The longer paper is well worth a read. Seems like environmental community backed off the issue of public lands grazing ever since DOI Secretary Bruce Babbitt took a run at reasonable grazing fees and was totally rolled by livestock industry and Congressional backers. (I had a boss back in DC who was a casualty of that particular war. Great story). Wilderness seems a good place to start re. abusive public lands grazing. But you’re up against so many American myths: the good cowboy, the hard working rancher (somewhat true but ignoring impacts on lands). Maybe we can arrange some tours for Congressional Members of overused and overgrazed wilderness… I know a few! I promise, no more comments unless I need to answer a specific question raised by our admittedly obscure presentation. I had a misspelling on a previous comment (thanks to my phone correcting me). I was talking about “funding” research not finding it!

  9. It seems to me that when there is a pretty place, the tourism industry highlights it. Then it gets overcrowded, and locals know to stay away and go elsewhere. E.g. what Patrick says about poor parking opportunities close to Indian Peaks. It’s a calculus all the regulars do “sure that lake is pretty but a long hike through lodgepole is also fun, I can park, and won’t run into people” but visitors cannot.

    I like to try new trails for which the comments on AllTrails say things like “nothing much to see” sometimes I wonder if the locals write those comments on purpose…

  10. On a general note, I recall talking with a Park Service staffer in DC about my proposal to build a series of canopy trails throughout US Natl Parks. She seemed overly concerned about such attractions creating “crowding” and I noted that facilities needed for such trails would, if at all possible, rely on existing roads, lodges, parking and restroom facilities etc. I noted that parks in general served as attractions that created crowding, often. She lamented this fact, and — my paraphrase (harsh I admit) — said that people had no business ruining natl parks. I said that legislative language establishing parks often were explicit about the need to provide recreation opportunities for PEOPLE. Well, that kind of upset her that Congress would be so foolish. Not much room for dialogue after that. I did ask if her views were widely shared in NPS. “Yes”

  11. Thanks Jim. We used to joke that NPS policy re visitors could be summed up as “NO.” They do magnificent job managing crowds but the culture seems to not like people much! Cool what you were trying to do. It’s sure an illustration of the “people are the problem” attitude rather than the “purpose” for recreation! We think that more creative better use of trails (like you were proposing and makes so much sense in the East where there are many old roads) and routes would help disperse use and address the “problem” of people wanting to enjoy their national parks, forests, heritage.

  12. RE: “Therefore, the purpose for wilderness is people’s use and enjoyment—e.g. wilderness experience.”

    That’s quite a quick stretch and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this opinion is not really entirely true. Also, The Wilderness Act’s “most repeated word is not “use.” It’s “wilderness” which is used more than 60 times.

    The following is from Wilderness Watch, which may help shed some more light on the issue:

    “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.” — Howard Zahniser, 1962

    Purpose of the Wilderness Act
    The Wilderness Act has one singular statutory purpose, and that is to secure the benefits of an enduring resource of Wilderness. This singular purpose is articulated in the opening paragraph of the Act as the Act’s Statement of Policy:

    “…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. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System…”

    As Howard Zahniser repeatedly testified to Congress during debate on the Wilderness bill, preserving Wilderness character is the essential key to securing an enduring resource of wilderness. The resource of wilderness and Wilderness character are inextricably intertwined. Without preservation of Wilderness character, the Wilderness resource would not exist.

    It is also important to note that Congress explicitly refers to the wilderness resource as singular. It recognized that wilderness is more than just a collection of other natural resources such as wildlife, free-flowing streams, etc. These physical resources are important components of the wilderness resource, but the Wilderness Act’s emphasis on wilderness character demonstrates that Congress intended that wilderness be understood as more than just a mixture of biophysical resources. By congressional decree, wilderness is a complex and unique resource in its own right, consisting of both tangible and intangible qualities. Therefore we cannot secure an enduring resource of wilderness simply by applying traditional natural resource management to various biophysical resources of wilderness. Preserving the resource of wilderness requires that we protect the overall wilderness character of each area in the System.

    Public Purposes of Wilderness
    As discussed above, the purpose of the Wilderness Act is singular: to secure an enduring resource of Wilderness. People commonly confuse this with the “public purposes” of wilderness referred to in Sec. 4 of the Act. The title of Sec. 4 is “Use of Wilderness Areas.” Sec. 4(b) states that, “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”

    These “public purposes” are not the purpose of the Act, they are the appropriate purposes for which the public may use Wilderness. These “public purposes” are allowable uses of Wilderness. However, they are not mandatory uses. These “public purposes” or uses do not take precedence over the singular purpose of the Act, which is to preserve an enduring resource of wilderness by preserving the Wilderness character of each area in the NWPS.

    If any of the allowable public uses of Wilderness conflict with the preservation of an area’s Wilderness character, then protecting Wilderness character has priority. Since the “public purposes” are allowable but not mandatory uses, a Wilderness can be completely closed to one or all of these “public purposes” if such use would diminish or degrade key components of Wilderness character. For this reason, there are several Wildernesses that are completely closed year-round to any public entry, as well as some that are completely closed to the public for part of the year.

    If the public uses were the purposes of the Act, then it would make no sense to close some areas to those uses. But Zahniser himself was emphatically clear on the secondary role of public uses in wilderness: “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.”

    For example, although recreation is an allowable use, it must be conducted in a manner that is compatible with preserving Wilderness character. This means the use of motorized and mechanized equipment to maintain trails and other recreational facilities can rarely be justified in Wilderness because motorized use diminishes Wilderness character. Promoting easy or convenient trail use is not necessary for preservation of wilderness character and therefore does not justify incompatible methods of trail maintenance. The protection of Wilderness character must come first, ahead of any allowable public uses of wilderness.

    • Interesting, I wasn’t aware of a wilderness area that was permanently closed to human recreation. I knew some marine sanctuaries were. Do you have a list?

      • So it took some digging but I found the 10 areas wilderness closed to humans. All of which are also National Wildlife refuges, so they have an additional mandate to put critters first.

        They are
        Farallon Island 141 acres
        Three Arch Rocks 15 acres
        Oregon Islands 593 acres
        Washington Islands 451 acres
        Island Bay 20 acres
        Passage Key 36 acres
        Pelican Island 55 acres
        Wolf island 5.126 acres
        Michigan Islands 12 acres
        Huron Island 197 acres
        Wisconsin Islands 29 acres

        In total 6,675 acres or roughly 0.007% of all wilderness acreage. They seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

    • Matthew, I guess my question is “who decides, now in 2019, what “diminishes wilderness character”? ” If it’s not laid out as part of the Act, exactly where is it written? If someone thinks that jet overflights diminish Wilderness character, would it count if I think it does? If you think so? If Wilderness Watch thinks so?

    • A point on context before responding to Matthew’s comments. The rather unusual analysis on words in the Wilderness Act posted as a PowerPoint and notes on The Smokey Wire was spurred by the experience David Chojnacky (my research and hiking partner) and I had in visiting and revisiting 60 wilderness areas over the past seven years. We found an alarming decline in wilderness access (especially in the West but also in East) due to a number of climate-related factors (fire, invasive species etc.) plus reductions in trail maintenance in recent years.

      To try to understand why, we went back to the Wilderness Act to try to better understand the original stated purpose for Wilderness. Prior to this policy and words analysis, I would have probably just repeated the “wilderness character” mantra since that is certainly what is mainly said in wilderness circles. However our bottom line finding was that “use and enjoyment” of American public was main purpose for wilderness while the means for ensuring this use and enjoyment was keeping wilderness in preserved/untrammeled condition. With that said, I will try to respond to the more salient comments. This response reflects thinking of both Dr. Chojnacky and myself; hence the use of the royal “we.” This also explains why it took so long to respond!

      First, good point that Wilderness Act has 60 references to “wilderness.” That makes sense as wilderness is the subject. As we found in our word analysis of the Act, “use” is only mentioned 28 times, words related to wilderness character 14 times (“untrammeled,” a favorite word of the wilderness community, is mentioned once) and words related to visitors or wilderness experience, 11 times.

      Matthew said that it was “quite a stretch” to conclude that “use and enjoyment” is the purpose of wilderness from the Act but we did not find his comments about wilderness purpose supported by the Act.

      We agree that Wilderness Watch frequently cites a 1962 statement by Howard Zahniser that the purpose of the Wilderness Act is “to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.” Zahniser was key contributor to Wilderness Act, but it seems misleading to use something he said two years BEFORE Congress passed the Wilderness Act to interpret the Act.

      Zahniser also said in 1956 : “I believe…we have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness – a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature…wilderness is a need. …Its preservation is a purpose that arises out of man’s own sense of his fundamental needs.”

      Matthew notes a “singular statutory purpose” for the Wilderness Act from the same statement of policy we cited for “use and enjoyment” as purpose of Wilderness Act: “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. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System…” That’s fine to infer a singular purpose but more important is that the subject is the “American people of present and future generations”—which adds little to our bottom line finding for wilderness purpose. Notice that Congress is securing this enduring resource of wilderness “for the American people of present and future generations.”

      Matthew’s interpretation seems to ignore the “for” portion of this policy—for the American people. Our analysis pointed out that “for” is a word that has been ignored or missed in the past. We see this as the “end” or purpose for wilderness designation, in context of this policy statement. Now we strongly agree that the wilderness stewardship job, e.g. the means is to “preserve the wilderness unimpaired for the future use and enjoyment of the American people.” Perhaps Wilderness Watch has the same means-end confusion we have seen in other wilderness circles.

      Matthew says Congress called the wilderness resource “singular” and “more than just a mixture of biophysical resources”, and has much to say about the importance of wilderness character. But we aren’t sure what this adds to the discussion about purpose of wilderness. We would not dispute that “the resource of wilderness and wilderness character are inextricably intertwined.” But wilderness character is a vague concept that seems to mean many different things to many different people. Here is what a respected wilderness researcher published about this concept.” I think a discussion on “wilderness character” from the viewpoint of science would be a great future subject for the Smokey Blog.

      Matthew closes with a long discussion on SECTION 4 of the Wilderness Act (on USE OF WILDERNESS AREAS including PROHIBITED USES AND SPECIAL PROVISIONS). Rather than weigh in on all his comments—many which we agree with—this section overall supports our finding, that Wilderness Act has a lot to say about “use” and it talks about prohibited and exempted uses in much difficult (and perhaps conflicting) language.

      But this section is NOT the place to draw major policy for implementing the Wilderness Act. It may quite useful for further interpretation of Act particularly for practical situations for land managers. For example, the PROHIBITED USE paragraph includes an exemption for those uses “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” The Forest Service has translated this statement for its “minimum tool” policy and uses traditional tools such as cross-cut saws for trail maintenance. However the exemption in this act makes it clear that if needed for purpose of this act (public use and enjoyment), this prohibition on motorized use could be exempted. For example, in today’s climate change environment with so many trails clogged by excessive fallen trees in burned areas, the Act might permit use of chainsaws by wilderness administrators to clear excessive tree fall from trails for public access.

      In summary, we urge the wilderness community to step back and take a careful look at the Wilderness Act language before advocating this or that. We think the purpose of the Wilderness Act is to “preserve” wilderness (the means) for “use and enjoyment” of American public (end purpose). We welcome Matthew (and encourage others) to continue this discussion but hope future dissenters will stick to the Wilderness Act language to clearly show where we have missed the point. Let’s leave Zahniser quotes and personal prescriptions on how the Act should be implemented out of this discussion and stick with what Congress has stated, even if we would prefer something different.

      • Hi Cindy: Just a quick point of clarification: I could not have been more clear when I stated in my comment “The following is from Wilderness Watch.”

        Not sure why you use my name so much, but the credit and attribution for all that Wilderness Act analysis belongs to Wilderness Watch. Thanks.

        • Thanks, good clarification. Your comments did seem based on Wilderness Watch interpretation of the Act so perhaps we wrongly assumed that you agreed with their viewpoints.

          We do think Wilderness Watch has misinterpreted portions of the Wilderness Act, contributing to confusion about the purpose of wilderness.

  13. See also, this piece WRITTEN BY TODD WILKINSON titled Can Greater Yellowstone’s Wildlife Survive Industrial Strength Recreation?

    Below are some excerpts from Todd Wilkinson’s piece:

    Following the group conversation, I thought about the Jackson Hole SHIFT Festival. Its motto: “Where Conservation Meets Adventure.” The foundational premise is that simply by being an outdoor recreationist, focused on personal physical fitness, it automatically equates to promoting conservation.

    But how exactly does that work for wildlife that needs secure habitat, which is finite and threatened by growing numbers of humans invading the front and backcountry?

    I’ve never seen SHIFT organizers reconcile this paradox nor have any of their previous conferences emphasized wildlife ecology, giving wildlife advocates only token representation on their agendas compared to a widening array of recreational users.

    Let’s follow the line of thinking: is the mere act of fly-fishing tantamount to delivering clean water into a stream? How does riding a mountain bike, or applying political pressure to undo wilderness protection in order to achieve greater human access, translate into better survival prospects for grizzly bears and solitude-seeking cow elk in their calving grounds?

    To simply recreate is not inherently an act of conservation any more than downhill skiing at a mountain resort, climbing the Grand or playing pond hockey is an expression of activism to confront climate change.

    In autumn 2019, the theme of the Jackson Hole SHIFT conference is: “Outside Rx.” Rx stands for “prescription.” SHIFT says it’s all about “establishing a stronger connection between, and thus a stronger argument for, outdoor recreation, public lands and public health.”

    I am curious to know how many residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem aren’t already abundantly aware that spending time in the outdoors, immersed in nature, is good for us. Isn’t that why most of us live here? One doesn’t need a team of medical professionals to tell us that.

    So, why does the SHIFT conference need to fly people in from around the country and the world to Greater Yellowstone to discover this obvious fact? Every attendee, one could argue, can find compelling evidence of nature as a balm for our bodies, minds, and spirits within miles of their homes.

    Or they can read Florence Williams’ excellent book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier And More Creative.”

    The real question is why host a conference at great expense in remote Jackson Hole unless one is emphasizing the incomparable, superlative attributes of the setting—the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem— which gives Jackson Hole its novel conservation context?

    Doing that would necessitate that SHIFT do more than make superficial reference to Greater Yellowstone’s incomparable wildlife. Yet, if one is only promoting the benefits of outdoor recreation, such a conference can be staged practically anywhere else and probably far more cheaply.

    As one prominent, nationally-renowned Greater Yellowstone conservationist told me recently, “SHIFT is emphasizing outdoor recreation as a prescription for achieving better personal health, but what is it prescribing to the impressionable, diverse young people attending its conference about the prescription necessary for maintaining a healthy world-class public lands ecosystem and the health of Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife?”

  14. See also, this piece WRITTEN BY GARY MACFARLANE.

    Many wilderness advocates, scientists, and public land experts and professionals have recognized, for decades now, the growing problem of too much recreation use in Wilderness. Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act’s author, recognized the purpose of the Wilderness Act is to protect Wilderness, not establish any particular use. As far back as 1956 he warned the threat “from development for recreation,” which applies to overbuilt trails, unnecessary bridges, and other “improvements” made in Wilderness in response to demands from recreationalists. Thus, he emphasized the need for restraint in our dealing with Wilderness.

    The 1978 edition of Wilderness Management, the definitive professional work on managing recreation and other human uses in Wilderness, summed it up, “There is a real danger of loving wilderness to death.” Too many visitors trample vegetation, compact soils, displace wildlife, destroy solitude, and degrade recreational experiences of those same visitors.

    This is truer today than it ever was, in part due to pressures from a much larger population, but also due to our inability and unwillingness to practice restraint when, in this case, it interferes with our desired recreational activity.

    Case in point, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering allowing a 400 percent increase in daily visitors to visit the Wave, a small, fragile, and unique rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, a remote place straddling the Arizona/Utah border. Due to the internet and other marketing, including marketing by BLM, that agency now claims the, “increase in public demand dramatically underscores the need to consider increasing visitor access” to this part of the Wilderness. Really?

    The law requires BLM to preserve Wilderness, yet the agency is promoting excessive use that degrades it. Nearly a quarter of a million people wanted to visit that area in 2018! Does BLM seriously expect Wilderness can be preserved by allowing 96 people per day at one small feature, let alone nearly 1,000 to meet the desires of all who supposedly want to go there? What ever happened to loving wilderness to death as a management concern?

    Since the Wilderness Act passed, expressing worry “that an increasing population” could overwhelm all wildlands, hence the need for the Wilderness Act, the US population has grown by 137,000,000. The authors of the Act were rightly concerned about future population growth—size and numbers matter when considering impacts to wild places and wildlife.

    Wildlife too, is harmed by the lack of restraint in recreational use and numbers, and it is not just from motorized users. Recent research suggests all trail recreation displaces wildlife. One study found the sound of human voices alone, including recordings, cause wildlife to flee, stop eating, or become nervous. That study found, “Humans have supplanted large carnivores as apex predators in many systems, and similarly pervasive impacts may now result from fear of the human ‘super predator.’” Mountain lions fear our voices, even our soft voices. In another example, an elk herd in and around Vail, Colorado decreased from 1,000 to only around 50 mostly due to biking in the summer and backcountry skiing in the winter. That herd could easily disappear because of excessive recreation use.

    In spite of recreational use levels that have exponentially increased on public lands, including Wilderness, since the early 1970s, there has been extensive hand-wringing by agency bureaucrats, politicians of both parties, and especially representatives of the recreation industry proclaiming a dire future for public lands due to supposed declines in outdoor recreation. Of course their answer is antithetical to the preservation of Wilderness and other wild places—more marketing, commodifying, commercial outfitting, fees, and access, all with little or no regard to impacts. Wilderness isn’t being spared.

    Recent bi-partisan legislation to boost outfitting (and user fees) on public land—going by the innocuous names of the “Recreation Not Red Tape Act” or “Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act”—suggests a recreation industry-controlled future of ever increasing numbers and commodification of recreation on public land, for which we all shall be charged and for which wildness, wildlife and Wilderness will all suffer greatly. Say goodbye to the outstanding opportunities for solitude.

    A 400 percent increase in use, as BLM proposes in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, is not good for the Wilderness, bighorn sheep in the area, or even the visitors who will have a degraded wilderness experience. For Wilderness and life forms dependent on wild country to survive, we need humility and restraint in our wildland recreation. Indeed, those same qualities will be needed if we are to survive at all.


Leave a Comment