Ross W. Gorte Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Kristina Alexander Legislative Attorney
Sandra L. Johnson Information Research Specialist
The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964 and directed that only Congress can designate federal lands as part of the system. Free-standing bills to designate wilderness areas are typically introduced and considered in each Congress; such bills are not amendments to the Wilderness Act, but typically refer to the act for management guidance and sometimes include special provisions. Several wilderness bills have been introduced in the 112th Congress.
Wilderness designation can be controversial. The designation generally prohibits commercial activities, motorized access, and human infrastructure from wilderness areas, subject to valid existing rights. Advocates propose wilderness designations to preserve the generally undeveloped conditions of the areas. Opponents see such designations as preventing certain uses and potential economic development in rural areas where such opportunities are relatively limited.
Most bills direct management of designated wilderness in accordance with the Wilderness Act. However, proposed legislation also often seeks a compromise among interests by allowing other activities in the area. Pre-existing uses or conditions are often allowed to continue, sometimes temporarily, with nonconforming uses to be halted and/or nonconforming conditions to be rectified. More commonly, the authority is permanent, with limited access permitted for specific areas, uses, and times, or with the authority to operate and maintain pre-existing infrastructure. Wilderness bills often contain additional provisions, such as prohibiting buffer zones, or providing special access for particular purposes, such as border security or Native American religious needs. Water rights possibly associated with wilderness designations have also been controversial, and many existing statutes have addressed wilderness water rights in various ways.
Other controversies regarding wilderness have been the subject of legislation. Bills have focused on access to wilderness areas for border security. Other legislation has addressed how and when wilderness study areas not recommended as wilderness should be released from wilderness-like protection, and when or if agencies should review the wilderness potential of their lands. The latter issue has been more contentious for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, for two reasons. First, BLM is required by law to protect the wilderness characteristics of its wilderness study areas (WSAs) until Congress determines otherwise. Second, a settlement agreement led to a 2003 BLM policy prohibiting additional administrative designations of wilderness study areas and limiting the agency’s ability to protect areas as if they were wilderness. In December 2010, however, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order directing BLM to maintain a wilderness inventory, to consider wilderness potential in planning, and to protect wilderness characteristics of the inventoried areas unless alternative management is deemed appropriate. This policy has received both praise and objections from some Members of Congress, as well as various interest groups. The FY2011 Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act (P.L. 112-10) prohibited using funds to implement this secretarial order.
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