WASHINGTON, DC--The Bush Administration has quietly smothered efforts to place almost a quarter million acres of national park lands in protected wilderness status, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). During the past several months, top Department of Interior officials have pocketed wilderness designations proposed by park officials for Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve (128,000 acres), California's Channel Islands National Park (68,000 acres), Texas's Guadalupe National Park (38,000 acres) and Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (7,700 acres).
The Bush Administration's antipathy toward wilderness protection received national attention this spring, when the Department of the Interior settled a lawsuit with the State of Utah that sacrificed the interim protected status of millions of acres of federal Bureau of Land Management lands classified as suitable for wilderness. At the same time, but without fanfare, Interior is denying wilderness protection to millions of roadless acres within the 84 million acre national park system.
Enacted in 1964, the Wilderness Act created a national mandate to identify and preserve American wilderness in perpetuity. The Act requires the Secretary of Interior to review every contiguous roadless area of greater than 5,000 acres within the park system to determine its suitability for wilderness. Once tracts are found suitable for wilderness, the Secretary is required to transmit those findings to Congress.
Bush political appointees are blocking park wilderness assessments started during the second Clinton term from reaching Congress. These studies include assessments of Big Cypress, Channel Islands, Guadalupe Mountains and Pictured Rocks. In the case of Big Cypress, the wilderness recommendation was rejected because it was "too detailed." Yet even a later, streamlined version of that recommendation has been shelved. In addition, Bush appointees in the Interior Department are quietly seeking ways to loosen system-wide wilderness preservation requirements. "The Bush Administration is reducing the Wilderness Act to a dead letter," commented PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a former long-time Park Service manager. "The clear pattern exhibited by Secretary Norton and her top aides has been to consistently overturn decisions of career park professionals that conflict with industrial and recreational special interests to which this Administration is beholden."
Apart from these latest wilderness assessments, and in apparent violation of the Wilderness Act and park enabling acts, the Bush Administration has failed to transmit recommendations from previous administrations that Congress designate more than 2 million acres of roadless areas as wilderness in eight parks in the Lower 48, including Grand Canyon, Voyageurs, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Glen Canyon National Parks. Nearly 17 million more acres in Alaska's national parks are similarly in limbo.