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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wilderness: Legislation and Issues in the 113th Congress

Katie Hoover
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Kristina Alexander
Legislative Attorney

Sandra L. Johnson
Information Research Specialist

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System 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. Numerous wilderness bills were introduced in the 112th Congress, but it was the first Congress since 1966 that did not add to the wilderness system. The 112th Congress was the first in decades not to designate additional wilderness; the only wilderness law that was enacted reduced the size of a wilderness area. Many bills to add to the wilderness system have been introduced in the 113th Congress.

Wilderness designation can be controversial. The designation generally prohibits commercial activities, motorized access, and human infrastructure from wilderness areas; however, there are several exceptions to this general rule. 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 providing special access for particular purposes, for example, border security. Water rights associated with wilderness designations have also proved controversial; many statutes have addressed wilderness water rights.

Controversies regarding management of existing wilderness areas also have been the subject of legislation. Bills have been introduced to expand access to wilderness areas for border security; to guarantee access for hunting, fishing, and shooting; to release wilderness study areas from wilderness-like protection; and to limit agency review of the wilderness potential of their lands. The latter two issues have been 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 December 2010 secretarial order directed BLM to maintain a wilderness inventory, to consider wilderness potential in planning, and to protect wilderness characteristics of those “Wild Lands” unless alternative management was deemed appropriate. The FY2012 Interior Appropriations Act (Division E of P.L. 112-74) prohibited using funds to implement the secretarial order, and bills were introduced to terminate the order. In June 2011, Secretary Salazar withdrew the order, but stated that BLM would maintain a wilderness inventory and continue to consider wilderness characteristics as required by law. Legislation in the 113
th Congress proposes to eliminate several WSAs.

Date of Report: June 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R41610
Price: $29.95

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