A Late Bloomer but Worth the Wait: BLM Desert Wilderness
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more land than any other federal agency (approximately 250 million acres or 42 percent of federal lands) yet has the fewest acres designated to wilderness (8.7 million acres or 7 percent of acreage within the National Wilderness Preservation System). BLM lands contain a preponderance of desert landscapes, which has arguably added to the agency’s challenges for identifying and protecting wilderness-quality lands.
As the last federal agency to get an organic act (the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 – FLPMA1), the BLM was not subjected to the Wilderness Act or proactive obligations to identify and manage potential wilderness until 1976. And it was not until 2009 that BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, which encompasses designated wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), as well as other protected BLM lands, was formally established through legislation. 2
Of the relatively minor percentage of wilderness-quality lands managed by the BLM, a small amount is on desert lands. However, the agency’s recognition and protection of desert wilderness continues to evolve.
Delays and Setbacks in Managing BLM’s Desert Wilderness
Wilderness – BLM misses the first round
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we must remember that the majority of U.S. public lands were initially excluded from review and designation as wilderness areas under the Act. BLM managed about 66 percent of the federal public estate when the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, but did not officially manage designated wilderness until 12 years later.
BLM was not left out of the 1964 Wilderness Act because the desert public lands were thought unworthy. The principal architect of the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser, had BLM lands in mind for inclusion in the Wilderness Act from the beginning; several early drafts of the bill mentioned “other public lands.” 3
Shortly after helping to establish The Wilderness Society in 1935, Bob Marshall produced a map of the “Largest Roadless Areas in the United States,” dividing the areas by “forest areas” and “desert areas.” 4 Marshall found substantially more acreage for desert lands. Robert Sterling Yard, another founder of The Wilderness Society, wrote in 1926 that “ there are other wildernesses than those in the National Parks and Forests. In the Public Lands, which still have greater area than the National Forests, will be found wilderness regions of charm and beauty.”5
In the end, it is generally agreed that the politics of the day made it unacceptable to include BLM in the 1964 bill. As BLM scholar James Skillen puts it, “such an amendment would almost certainly have killed the wilderness bill.” 6
Getting left out of the Wilderness Act may have had some benefits. As stated by then-BLM Director Cy Jamison at a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Act in 1989:
Although getting such a late start in the wilderness process may seem to be a disadvantage, in many ways it has proven to be a blessing. It allowed us to learn from our sister agencies, benefit from their mistakes and successes; then design better approaches to fulfilling this mandate from Congress. The main lesson we learned was to fully involve the public – including special interest groups – throughout the wilderness study process. 7
BLM joins the wilderness effort
During his 1959-1973 tenure as chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall vowed to delay any wilderness bill unless a Public Land Law Review Commission was created to evaluate and make recommendations on the hundreds of laws governing the management of federal public lands. The commission was created shortly after the Wilderness Act passed. On the same day that the commission was created, Congress gave BLM temporary authority to either classify BLM lands for retention and multiple use management or for disposal out of the federal estate. “Wilderness preservation” was listed among the many uses enumerated in the Classification and Multiple Use Act and BLM created its first “primitive areas.” As the Classification and Multiple Use Act was expiring, the Public Land Law Review Commission published its final report and recommendations in 1970 titled, “One Third of the Nation’s Land.” This important report provided the foundation for debate over the BLM’s “organic act,” which became FLPMA. With this legislation, BLM joined its sibling federal agencies in the awesome responsibility of identifying, managing, and recommending areas for designation as wilderness by Congress.
Wilderness Study Areas – and then no more
Pursuant to Section 603 of FLPMA 8, the BLM was directed to inventory its roadless areas to identify those that met the criteria for designation under the Wilderness Act, then designate WSAs. Wilderness characteristics are generally defined as: 5,000 roadless acres, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation. WSAs may also exhibit supplemental values that are ecological, geological, educational, historical, scientific, or scenic. BLM completed initial assessments and designations of WSAs in 1980, including recommendations as to whether WSAs were suitable for wilderness designation by Congress. Until Congress makes a final determination, BLM manages WSAs to preserve their suitability for wilderness designation. Subsequent to the initial inventory, BLM continued to inventory lands for wilderness characteristics and designate WSAs pursuant to its general land management authority, under FLPMA Section 202. 9 Through the authority given to BLM in sections 603 and 202 of the FLPMA, it designated a small number of desert landscapes and recommended even fewer of these as suitable for congressional action.
In 2003, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton entered into a settlement agreement with the state of Utah in, which the Interior Department took the novel legal position (inconsistent with that of every prior administration) that BLM actually lacked authority to designate new WSAs. This settlement dramatically curtailed BLM’s authority to protect wilderness-quality lands; and the lack of commitment to identifying and protecting lands that meet the criteria for wilderness designation set additional obstacles to identifying and protecting wilderness-quality lands.
Current policy – lands with wilderness characteristics get a fairer chance at protection
First issued as interim guidance in 2011 and then as manuals in March 2012, BLM now has specific guidance on inventorying lands for wilderness characteristics and factors to consider in deciding if and how to manage lands to protect their wilderness characteristics. 10 Wilderness characteristics are defined in a manner consistent with the Wilderness Act and WSAs.
The BLM’s current guidance confirms that “[m]anaging the wilderness resource is part of the BLM’s multiple use mission” and directs BLM to “conduct and maintain inventories regarding the presence or absence of wilderness characteristics, 10 and to consider identified lands with wilderness characteristics in land use plans and when analyzing projects.” 11 Under this new guidance, BLM has been identifying millions of acres with wilderness characteristics and considering options for their management.
However, there continue to be difficulties in acknowledgment and commitment to protect these lands, especially in the desert. For desert landscapes, challenges have often related to findings that lack of mountains or extreme topography somehow precludes outstanding experiences of solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation.
Deserving Wilderness-quality BLM Lands – A Sampling
Home to the renowned sandstone formation known as “The Wave,” the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness encompasses approximately 110,000 acres just north of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. One of BLM’s first “primitive areas” designated under the Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964, it became an “Instant Study Area” when FLPMA was passed in 1976 and was established as a wilderness area in the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. In 2009, Congress designated 14 new BLM wilderness areas in the southwestern corner of Utah, comprising 129,000 acres in Washington County. The same law also created two National Conservation Areas and about 19 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, all managed by the BLM in the National Landscape Conservation System. These areas are connected to or near the breathtaking vistas of Zion National Park, and provide important wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation opportunities near the Dixie National Forest.
Additional areas with wilderness characteristics that can and should be protected
The Chamisa and Ignacio Chavez WSAs in central New Mexico include rugged topography and cinder cones, with both arid lands at lower elevations and piñon and ponderosa pines at higher elevations. In addition to their interesting scenery and remote feeling, these WSAs provide habitat for elk and mule deer. The Continental Divide Trail passes through, emphasizing the outstanding recreation opportunities.
Together, these WSAs encompass more than 50,000 acres, the majority of which BLM recommended as suitable for wilderness designation. BLM’s appreciation of these landscapes in New Mexico is encouraging and sends a strong message to the public and Congress about their value. The Adobe Town WSA in southwestern Wyoming encompasses almost 86,000 acres of pinnacles and cliffs up to 500 feet tall stretching for miles. It is surrounded by badlands, which embody the definition of roadless, natural areas and outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, while providing home to raptors and pronghorn. However, BLM has recommended less than 11,000 acres as suitable for wilderness designation, limiting the recommendation to portions of the ravine and denying the suitability of the remaining landscape. Citizens have identified and advocated for protection of additional lands surrounding the WSA. BLM has now acknowledged significant acreage outside the WSA as having wilderness characteristics,but has yet to commit to protecting them.
In planning for management of the Carrizo Plain National Monument in California, BLM received comments emphasizing the importance of representing the wilderness values of the plain’s desert grasslands. In response, the agency revisited its original inventory, identified two additional areas, and is managing more than 13,000 acres of the valley floor to protect wilderness characteristics. In this instance, when alerted to the need to acknowledge desert wilderness, BLM embraced it.
The BLM experience with wilderness is a coming-of-age story about an agency that was late to receive the responsibilities of its sibling agencies. As a result, BLM remains the public land management agency with the most potential for wilderness conservation. As BLM continues to embrace its conservation mission and to hear from citizens who believe in the value of these desert landscapes, the agency can avail itself of the many opportunities to identify and safeguard its desert wilderness.
Original Article by Nada Culver and Phil Hanceford
Nada Culver is senior counsel and director and Phil Hanceford is assistant director of the BLM Action Center at The Wilderness Society. The BLM Action Center works to protect wilderness values on our public lands, including millions of acres in the desert.
- 43 U.S.C. 1701, et seq.
- 16 U.S.C. §§ 7201-7203.
- Scott, Doug. 2004. The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act. Fulcrum Publishing.
- Marshall, Robert and Althea Dobbins. 1936. “Largest Roadless Areas in United States.” The Living Wilderness. November 1936.
- Yard, Robert Sterling. “For a Wilderness Policy: To Protect from Unappreciative Encroachment Rare Primitive Areas Which Still Remain.” National Parks Bulletin 7, no. 47 (January 1926): 8.
- Skillen, James R. 2009. The Nation’s Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West. University of Press Kansas.
- Jamison, Cy. 1989. “The Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Program Gets Underway in Earnest!” From the “Managing America’s Enduring Wilderness Resource” conference.
- 43 U.S.C. § 1782.
- 43 U.S.C. § 1712.
- Manual 6310 (Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory on BLM Lands); Manual 6320 (Considering Lands with Wilderness Characteristics in the BLM Land Use Planning Process)
- Instruction Memorandum 2011-154.
Phil Hanceford is Assistant Director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. Phil uses his knowledge of natural resource law and policy to protect desert wildlands in the West stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management. As a transplant to the West from North Carolina, Phil appreciates the openness and remoteness of BLM-managed wildlands, exploring the majestic rivers and canyons of the West and discovering new places to freely strum and pick his mandolin. Through engagement in land use planning and advocating for new policy, he works to change the agency culture of the BLM to fully embrace the conservation aspects of its mission and enhance and expand America’s newest network of protected public lands: the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System.