Washington, DC — Charging that the National Park Service has “accomplished relatively little in implementing either the letter or the spirit of the Wilderness Act,” one of its top officials responsible for wilderness policy has resigned, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Enacted forty years ago this upcoming September 3, the Wilderness Act is one of the nation’s premier environmental laws. As a result of the act, the National Park Service (NPS) administers some 44 million acres of wilderness spread across some 45 parks, the largest wilderness inventory on the planet.
Jim Walters, a 37-year employee, retired as Wilderness program coordinator for the eight state Intermountain Region, with a stinging letter to NPS Director Fran Mainella. Even though designated and potential wilderness represent more than four-fifths (86%) of national park lands, NPS today — with Walters’ departure — has only one full-time wilderness manager.
In his letter, Walters maintains that the Park Service has not “taken its wilderness management responsibilities seriously,” citing the agency’s failure to:
- Undertake required suitability studies for new wilderness designations. As a result, proposed wilderness plans for 31 parks remain in limbo. According to PEER, these new wilderness areas would increase the entire Park Service wilderness network by more than half, protecting an area nearly the size of the state of Montana, from development, traffic and noise;
- Adopt wilderness management plans. Less than one-fifth of wilderness parks have mandated wilderness management plans; and
- Police violations of wilderness rules. The Park Service is moving to authorizing wholesale Wilderness Act violations by its own staff.
“The Park Service opposed its inclusion in the Wilderness Act forty years ago and acts today like the Wilderness Act never applied to it,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization is litigating against and pressuring the Park Service to implement and enforce wilderness protections in parks across the country. “From President Bush on down, Administration appointees wax poetic about nature’s solitude but have done precious little to protect that value for future generations.” Walters highlights the Park Service’s tendency to study the wilderness needs but take no action, pointing out that the recommendations from three internal tasks forces and one external committee “have been ignored or only superficially adhered to.”