De facto wilderness areas need reverted back to multiple-use – November 2017
“If there are trees on it we want it.” That was the reply from an environmentalist I had been talking to several years ago when I asked him how much wilderness he thought was enough. At that time, I had reviewed the statistics put out by the U.S. Forest Service and discovered that 30 percent of the Forest Service’s land in Wyoming had been placed into wilderness protection by Congress. This is the highest percentage of Forest Service lands in wilderness of any state in the Union. The Wyoming Wilderness Act was pretty magnanimous. Of course the process is heavily weighted in favor of wilderness designations. If a federal land management agency determines an area is suitable for wilderness under the terms of the Act, then they recommend to the President who recommends to Congress that they should consider that area for wilderness.
The kicker in the whole process is that until Congress authorizes or releases those areas, then the agencies have to manage them as wilderness. The term “de facto wilderness” has been with us for a long time, since there are several areas in Wyoming that were identified for possible inclusion into the wilderness system. Many of these areas are identified on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and have been awaiting action by Congress.
For many the “land of many uses” as the U.S. Forest Service had on their signs became the “land of a few uses.” That’s when some of the problems associated with just a “few uses” became apparent. In a letter to Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation, the Lincoln County Commissioners pointed out that their county is approximately 77 percent federal and state land. The impact of special designations, including wilderness on their county’s economy is significant and the limited economic uses allowed have contributed to decreased county revenues.
Economic uses of land is one of the foundation creators of wealth in this nation. The Wilderness Act by its very nature is designed to limit those uses to a select few. Even the things ostensibly allowed under the Wilderness Act are frowned upon by proponents of more wilderness. The Act specifically allows vehicles for measures that may be necessary for the control of fire, insects, and diseases. However, when fires occur in wilderness areas now the main effort, if any effort occurs, is through non-motorized techniques. Of course this exacerbates the cost of fighting fires as well as jeopardizes safety.
It hasn’t been that long ago an anti-ag group sued the Forest Service for allowing aerial control of predators in wilderness areas claiming that action was a violation of the Wilderness Act. What we’ve seen is that a wilderness designation soon becomes a bar that can be used to leverage other “non-use” efforts; even adjacent to those areas.
However, the de facto nature of the Wilderness Act allows entities who feel 30 percent of the Forest Service land isn’t enough to have their cake and eat it too. Changes need to be made that would allow de facto wilderness designations to revert back to the multiple use mandates we’ve supported and that support the local economies. Release language should be placed into the Federal Land Policy Management Act or the Wilderness Act that says if Congress doesn’t act within a period of time, say five or ten years, then de facto wilderness goes away.
Of course the wilderness advocates will still want more until Wyoming is more like a national park, but to those who utilize federal lands as part of their daily lives it will at least start to level the playing field.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President