An Introduction to the Modern History of National Western Wilderness Defense Legislation

Part 1: Public Lands From 1870 onwards, American westward development began to change its focus from private development, to management by the federal government of the remaining public lands. Besides municipalities, state parks, military installations and Native-American reservations, all public lands in the West are under the regulation of three agencies: The United States Forest Service (USFS), The National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Any land designated as federal wilderness falls under the jurisdiction of one of these three agencies. Anyone who identifies as a conservationist should understand what these agencies aim to do, how they came to be, and what lands and projects they govern. This essay will address these issues in three parts: (I) An introduction to each agency, (II) a chronology of legislative milestones that built each institution and (III) a portfolio of maps describing the patchwork of land policy across these beautiful wildscapes. The landscapes of the west have been forever changed and directly influenced by Washington D.C. since gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848. In fact, just one year later, in 1849, the Department of the Interior was established to manage all administrative aspects to federal lands, including Indian affairs and resource allocation. Despite the early establishment of such an agency, most federal policy in the nineteenth century was geared toward the disposal of the public domain. The Department of the Interior was not envisioned as a conservation-based institution. The federal government was relying on proceeds from land sales to the federal treasury to further the nation’s economic growth. Forged in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park (although portions of Yosemite were designated as a state park in 1864, it was not federally managed until 1890). The American Antiquities act of 1906 gave the president the power to declare national monuments, whereas national parks are designated by an act of congress. The national parks that were created before 1940 continue to be the most popular, with their topographical emphasis being on the particular mountain and canyon ‘jewels’ across these states. In 1956, Mission 66 (a ten-year federally-sponsored program) modernized the NPS and gave birth to the “Visitor’s Center”, adding another 78 parks to the list of this, most-protected of all land designations. Although often politically contentious, it could easily be argued that the National Park system remains our country’s best and most successful system of wild land protection. The network of the currently listed 59 national parks and 110 national monuments remain a true legacy of lasting vision and endless inspiration.

The shift in priority from the federal disposal and parceling of remaining forested lands from private sales, to public protection, happened between 1890 and 1910. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891, under President Harrison, began to put the infrastructure in place to protect timber and watershed resources. Establishing the new forest system as the “land of many uses,” the subsequently passed Forest Management Act of 1897 opened up an administrative path for President Theodore Roosevelt to add another 100 million acres of forest to the new system. One of the primary aims of national forests was the realization that such land was needed for watershed preservation as the population of the West rose quickly. Under pressure from forward thinking conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, certain sites began to be designated primitive areas or wildernesses, beginning with the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, in 1924. Over the last century, national policy has transformed with changing attitude to how we manage these immense lands. Despite aspirations of preservation, National Forest timber continued to be harvested at an unsustainable rate until the 1960’s, when three pieces of legislation – the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act (1960), The National Environmental Policy Act (1970), and the National Forest Management Act (1976), – collectively established a management mandate of ecological-based resource usage. These multiple legislations were necessary to manage and manipulate the recovery and reinvention of the forests from the wanton destruction caused by westward expansion. Specific examples of this reinvention include the reseeding of millions of logged acres, the impact of livestock grazing, wildlife management, reintroduced species, recreational hunting, planting fish populations, weed eradication and energy development. The final federal agency of land protection (and largest in terms of actual acreage) is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Most of the non-charismatic land that is not under the legislative management of the NFS or the NPS, is under the protection of the BLM, and it amounts to a staggering 150 million acres. It wasn’t until 1976, with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, that the BLM really had clear direction, with mandates for recreational activity, wilderness preservation and ecosystem restoration. In the last decade, BLM management of leases to energy companies in shale rich areas for fossil-fuel production potential, including fracking, has come under the political spotlight. How will Western Wilderness Defense change over the next one hundred years? Will a warmer, drier West influence public policy towards more stringent forest protection legislation? We cannot be sure. What is certain, however, is that federal protection of these vast wilderness networks is an ongoing experiment. In 2009, the Omnibus Wilderness Act added an additional 2,000,000 acres of wilderness, in previously designated NFS lands, in nine states. As human population increases, and its resource needs continue to accelerate, so too does an intangible spiritual need for a roadless wilderness, which offers solitude and silence. For better or worse, there are no ecosystems across the West that humans are now not inexorably linked to, and have a hand in shaping. The Federal systems of management and governance over these systems are largely designed to protect these places from humans, and the effects of humans on these places. The system may not be perfect, but the general trajectory, from the exploitation to the conservation of these places is encouraging.