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The "other" wilderness.

BLM wildlands are different-starker, dryer, closer to people than traditional Wildernesses. But that diversity is needed to round out the national system.

Wilderness. The word brings visons of peace and tranquility to some people, stirs up concern and opposition in others. It is appropriate and timely that as the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the Bureau of Land Management, with some 450,000 acres of designated Wilderness, is approaching the point where more of its 271 million acres of public land may be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

BLM is the new kid in the Wilderness. Its sister land-managing agencies-the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service -have been in the Wilderness "business" for years since passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. However, BLM'S involvement didn't begin until 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). It directed the BLM to review roadless areas under its jurisdiction and recommend to the President those suitable for Wilderness designation. These recommendations are to be completed by October 1991. Though it is a bit early in the process, it is expected that some 10 to 12 million acres will be proposed as new Wilderness, according to Keith H. Corrigall, Chief of BLM'S Branch of Wilderness Resources.

Although it may seem that BLM was at a disadvantage by being so late in identifying lands suitable for Wilderness, it was in many respects a blessing. The three other agencies had already completed the majority of their Wilderness recommendations. BLM personnel thus could learn how those agencies had proceeded, benefit from their mistakes and challenges, and design better approaches.

The primary lesson learned was to fully involve the public-including special-interest groups-throughout the study process. Other agencies had found that having technical experts develop wilderness proposals and then presenting what seemed to be completed plans to the public was not well received. Neither was working directly with Congress and thereby bypassing the public.

The first phase of the process-compiling an inventory of wildlands to study-involved soliciting advice, including holding public meetings. The inventory took three years to complete (1977-80). No lands east of or bordering the Mississippi were found to qualify for wilderness study. The completed studies were made available at local BLM offices for comment and review by anyone who was interested.

To further ensure public involvement, the agency decided to study land on a state-by-state basis. Environmental impact statements are prepared to fully explain the consequences of the various wilderness options. In this way, people can relate more easily to the study areas and give detailed input since they are likely to be familiar with the lands being discussed. Observers can obtain an EIS and respond intelligently.

FLPMA mandated that all BLM Wilderness areas be identified and presented to the President by 1991. By imposing a calendar deadline, Congress has made the BLM'S wilderness process more orderly and efficient.

When people think of Wilderness, they usually conjure up towering pine trees and tall mountain peaks. Few of BLM'S Wilderness lands can be described that way. The rugged King Range area, for example, spans a 42mile stretch of the northern California coastline. There are the undulating sand dunes in the California Desert ... Powderhorn and its high alpine surroundings in southwest Colorado ... red-rocked canyons and petroglyphs in southeastern Utah. This is just a sampling of the diverse types of land BLM is considering for Wilderness designation.

Those Wilderness study lands--more than 800 identified areas in 11 western states encompass some 25 million acres.

None of those areas is in Alaska, though BLM administers some 75 million acres there. Why? Because of the unsettled patterns of land ownership there, brought about by the Alaska Native Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Secretary of the Interior in 1981 directed BLM to suspend Wilderness studies there. When the land situation becomes clearer, BLM will begin studies in Alaska, but they will be done under the agency's standard land-use-planning procedures, not as part of the special studies due by 1991.

BLM'S Wilderness study areas are unique and diverse in ways beyond just their landforms. For one, they are a vast cultural and historical warehouse, containing thousands of Native American archaeological sites, prehistoric rock carvings and paintings, pioneer trails, ghost towns, and fossil remains.

Because many of these lands are at lower elevations than Wildernesses overseen by other agencies, they are closer to urban areas and generally more accessible. The California Desert, for example, is only a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. The public will be able to use these areas more than they do remote Wildernesses.

There is diversity, too, in the sizes of BLM'S remote lands. The smallest Congressionally designated Wilderness area in the nation is BLM'S Oregon Islands, five acres off the Oregon coast. At the other extreme are huge study areas like California's Saline Valley, some 400,000 acres not far from Death Valley National Monument.

Another factor that sets BLM study areas apart from most other Wildernesses is their dryness. These desert or desertlike lands, where water and firewood are scarce, won't see intensive recreational use. Thus solitude and scenic values-and the chance for a true wilderness experience-will be maximized.

The subject of water in wilderness is an increasingly contentious one. In the West, land and water rights are closely linked. Under present Interior Department policy, any water rights needed for BLM Wilderness areas will be acquired under state law, not by using the federal reserved water rights doctrine. Because water controversies are sure to occur, it is expected that each BLM Wilderness law will have special language on water rights. It is also probable that the battle over water rights will continue for many years.

Another area of contention is the land-ownership patterns in the study areas. More than two million acres of state and privately owned lands are within the boundaries of these areas, and most of the owners are not happy about being thus "landlocked. " Many want to develop their lands for uses that are not compatible with the concept of wilderness. Some want to build access roads across agency Wilderness, though such a road would destroy wilderness values. On the other hand, some owners believe their lands increase in value if they are within a federal Wilderness.

Compounding the problems and challenges is the fact that certain nonconforming but accepted" uses such as grazing and mining are legally allowed to continue in some Wilderness areas.

The problems and challenges will always be there, but the goal of establishing and preserving these very special lands-from ocean shoreline to high desert to alpine meadows-is worth the effort that will surely be involved. Many threatened and endangered animal and plant species live on these BLM study lands. Wilderness designation will protect them and their habitat for future generations to study and enjoy. And the great diversity of these lands, the agency hopes, will help the nation to round out its Wilderness System, unmatched in all the world. AF

Scott Brayton is a Public Affairs Specialist in BLM'S Washington headquarters.


Despite the orderly process and schedule established by BLM to study prospective Wilderness areas under its FLPMA mandates, Congress has the option of passing Wilderness legislation before the agency makes its recommendations. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress has the ultimate authority to designate areas as federal Wilderness. It may choose to preempt BLM'S process and use its authority for various reasons, ranging from concern about the impacts on wilderness study areas due to activities such as grazing and mining (permitted during the review process) to disfavor with the review process or BLM'S anticipated recommendations.

In the 101st Congress, legislation has been introduced for California and Utah that would substantially increase preliminary BLM Wilderness recommendations. The California Desert Protection Act (S. 11 and H.R. 780), introduced as companion bills by Senator Alan Cranston and Representative Mel Levine, would designate 4.3 million acres of BLM Wilderness and transfer 3.2 million acreas of BLM-managed land to the National Park Service. BLM'S recommendations for California-currently being reviewed by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan and scheduled to go to President Bush in September-are to add 2.2 million acres of Wilderness in the state.

The Utah Wilderness Act (H.R. 1500), introduced by Rep. Wayne Owens, would designate more than five million acres of BLM Wilderness in that state. Opposing this, Rep. Jim Hansen introduced H.R. 1501, which designates only 1.4 million acres of BLM Wilderness, following BLM'S early recommendations.

These bills will generate intense controversy within California and Utah congressional delegations, and will likely lead to protracted legislative battles.

On April 14, the National Public Lands Advisory Council, a group chosen by the Interior Department to provide outside counsel and support, adopted a resolution criticizing Congress for hasty action on BLM wilderness legislation and urged Secretary Lujan to write a letter to Congress "requesting that action on BLM Wilderness be deferred until the process mandated by FLPMA is completed and the recommendations of the President are formally transmitted to the Congress. "

This appears to be a reasonable request, but given the strong competing interests involved in tile political debate over Wilderness designations, Congress may find it difficult to defer action on legislation affecting some states. In addition to the congressional battles sure to be waged over California and Utah legislation, Wilderness bills may soon be introduced for Arizona and New MEXICO.-GERALD J. GRAY
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Bureau of Land Management's wilderness study areas
Author:Gray, Gerald J.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:Wilderness tomorrow.
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