Washington, DC —Millions of acres of wild lands throughout the national park system remain legally unprotected, according to a detailed analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). All told, long-stalled wilderness proposals would increase park wilderness by more than half, putting at least an additional 26 million acres – an area the size of Tennessee – under wilderness protection.
The National Park Service (NPS) administers more wilderness than any other federal agency. Yet, Congress has failed to designate wilderness recommended by past Presidents in many of the nation’s flagship parks from Big Bend in Texas to Glacier in Montana. Park wild lands are too often “protected” only by NPS policies – policies which may be waived by high officials of this, or future administrations.
Even when Congress has set deadlines for wilderness recommendations, the NPS has failed to meet them. The agency has also shirked basic administrative duties to prepare legal descriptions and boundary maps for all areas designated by Congress, or convert areas legally designated as potential wilderness into full wilderness. Still other parks need to assess roadless lands that are eligible. Even where local park staff has done the work, several eligibility assessments remain stuck in NPS Regional Offices. For example –
- In 1980 Congress ordered a wilderness review for Channel Islands National Park, due in 1984, which the NPS finally included in a 2009 Draft General Management Plan but it is not yet released, making it 29 years overdue;
- The wilderness dimensions of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are uncertain because the NPS failed to submit the written legal descriptions and boundary maps even though Congress created the wilderness in 1978, 35 years ago; and
- In the lower 48 States, more than 8.6 million acres of park lands have reached the final stages of wilderness designation but have languished for many years. Wilderness recommendations for 17 parks were submitted to Congress but were not acted upon. NPS wilderness proposals for another 7 parks (including Grand Canyon) and 13 in Alaska were never forwarded to the White House or Congress.
“The National Park Service is a wilderness-managing agency but, for a variety of reasons, it has ignored fundamental wilderness review responsibilities imposed both by law and policy,” stated PEER Board Chair Frank Buono, a former career NPS manager who compiled the analysis. “While there has been some progress in recent years, it has been fitful and halting.”
The recently concluded 112th Congress did not designate any wilderness in the national park system and became the first Congress to effect a net reduction of park wilderness, albeit by a very small amount. At the same time, NPS is adopting policies that threaten the wilderness qualities of undesignated lands, including authorizing single-track mountain bike trails into park backcountry, stripping wilderness eligibility from lands to allow off-road vehicles and plans to broadly extend cell and Wi-Fi coverage.
“Wilderness is the surest way for the NPS to fulfill its mandate to preserve park resources unimpaired for future generations. In a nation of increasing population and development, what will make the parks ever more relevant is not more high-end destination resorts, thrill sports and Wi-Fi but the solitude and preservation that only wilderness afford,” added Buono. “Significantly, not a single recent NPS Director has ever given clear and explicit marching orders for the NPS to complete its wilderness review agenda.”
Indeed, such a wilderness roadmap is laid out in the PEER web center, including detailed information about the location and status of each stalled wilderness recommendation, proposal or eligibility assessment, as well as a catalog of wilderness review program improvements.