Frequently Asked Questions

Public Lands in General

What are public lands?

Public lands are those lands that the federal government acquired by purchase or by conquest of either Native American tribes or foreign nations. Under the United States Constitution, Congress is given authority for the regulation and disposition of the public lands.

What is the Bureau of Land Management?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency under the Department of the Interior. The BLM manages those federal lands left over after 150 years of transferring land to private ownership, to the state of Utah, and to other government agencies. These lands are owned in common by the American people. As mandated by Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), BLM lands are managed under the concept of "multiple use," for the general benefit of the public.

What is "multiple use"?

The BLM manages its lands under the mandate of "multiple use." For example, a single BLM district can be used for grazing, skiing, timber cutting, hunting, mining, and wilderness. A common misconception is that multiple use means all uses in all places, but this is not the case. Obviously, grazing, skiing, mining, timber cutting, hunting, and wilderness can not all exist on the same acre of land at the same time. Yet all of these activities can exist within a particular National Forest of BLM district. The Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960 requires that federal agencies manage their lands so that all uses on these lands are "harmoniously balanced." Wilderness is multiple use, both in fact, and under law.

Wilderness in General

What is a wilderness area?

A wilderness area is designated land set aside by Congress to preserve its wild state and all of the values associated with that wilderness scenic beauty, solitude, wildlife, geological features, archaeological sites, and other features of scientific, educational, or historical value. The Wilderness Act of 1964 stated that "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…"

The Wilderness Act further stipulates that wilderness areas should be without permanent improvements of human habitation, affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, composed of "federally owned areas designated by Congress as ‘wilderness areas,’ and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyments as wilderness…"

How is wilderness established?

Designated wilderness is carved out of America’s public lands land already set aside as National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and lands managed by the BLM. It is created by specific acts of Congress designating particular areas as wilderness. Today, there are more than 95.3 million acres of wilderness protected in National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and BLM lands. Nearly two-thirds of this designated wilderness is in Alaska.

Why is wilderness important?

Wilderness areas are important because they provide long-term protection to the last of our nation’s wild country, country that contains spectacular beauty, maintains spiritual values, supports native plants and animals, and provides opportunity for primitive recreation.

Where did the idea of wilderness come from?

There is a long history of the land protection ethic in America. In the 1850s President Grant set aside land in Yosemite that would become Yosemite National Park. In 1872, Yellowstone was made the first National Park.

The first bill to create a National Wilderness Preservation System was introduced in 1956. The 1964 wilderness Act took eight years, eighteen hearings, and sixty-six revisions to become law.

How "natural" must the land be to qualify as wilderness?

An area is considered to be natural if the imprints of human intrusion are "substantially unnoticeable." The Wilderness Act specifically permits trails, bridges, fire towers, pit toilets, fire rings, fish habitat enhancement facilities, fencing, and research monitoring devices. Other human impacts are permitted in Wilderness areas, so long as their overall impact is substantially unnoticeable. Sights and sounds of activities occurring outside an area are not considered when assessing naturalness, even if these activities are quite prominent.

What activities are allowed in a wilderness area?

Non-motorized recreation including horseback riding, non-commercial herb gathering, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting are allowed. Agencies may maintain and construct trails in wilderness. The use of wheelchairs, including motorized wheelchairs, is permitted in wilderness areas when the wheelchair is a medical necessity. Grazing is allowed to continue at levels consistent with sound resource management if it existed prior to the designation of the area as a wilderness.

What activities are not allowed in wilderness?

The Wilderness Act prohibits such activities as mining, chaining, water development, and timber harvest (although mining may occur where there is a valid pre-existing right to mine). The Wilderness Act also prohibits use of motorized vehicles in wilderness except under emergency circumstances. This means that chain saws, trucks, cars, bulldozers, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and other motorized equipment cannot be used within wilderness areas. Mountain bikes are not permitted in wilderness areas.

What’s the difference between a wilderness and a National Park?

Wilderness areas are defined as roadless areas on public lands that have been designated by Congress to be preserved in a primitive condition. Parts of many National Parks are also preserved in a largely natural condition in which roads, mechanical devices and permanent structures are not allowed. However, National Parks can also include developed, roaded areas. With few exceptions, grazing and hunting are not allowed in parks, whereas they are allowed in wilderness areas.

Why not use some other form of protection for wilderness?

A wilderness area is protected by law (the 1964 Wilderness Act) and the status can only be changed by an act of Congress. Congress has carefully defined wilderness, established a uniform national system of wilderness and given clear guidance as to how wilderness must be managed. Other designations such as primitive areas give temporary protection but the protection can be modified or removed by the signature of an appointed administrative official. Other categories, such as conservation areas and recreation areas lack the statutory foundation of the Wilderness Act to guide their permanence and integrity.

Will roads be closed by wilderness designation?

Only areas which are currently roadless and undeveloped qualify for wilderness designation. Areas with constructed, regularly maintained roads do not qualify for wilderness and are not included in the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal for Utah, (America’s Redrock Wilderness Act.)

What about private and state land in proposed wilderness areas?

Reasonable access to state lands and private property, by such means as motorized vehicles, is allowed within wilderness, but the land management agency generally attempts to acquire these inholdings on a willing-seller basis. The intent of America’s Redrock Wilderness Act is to exchange state lands within wilderness for federal lands located elsewhere.

Grazing in Wilderness

Why is grazing bad for Utah lands?

The ongoing decline in grazing is unrelated to wilderness issues. Yet livestock grazing causes more damage to southern Utah’s natural resources than any other commercial activity. The following domestic livestock impacts have been documented on public lands in southern Utah: increased soil erosion; competition for forage with wildlife species; the introduction and proliferation of non-native plant species; the spread of disease to wildlife; damage to riparian areas and archaeological sites; deterioration of water quality; and the elimination of native predators such as wolves, bears, mountain lions, and coyotes.

What is chaining?

Chaining is the practice of clearing public land of trees and shrubs so that the land will be more "productive" for cattle grazing. Chaining is usually accomplished by dragging a ship anchor chain between two bulldozers, tearing up everything in the path; the mauled trees are usually burned afterwards. The technique is most often carried out on pinyon pine/juniper forestlands in the arid west. Chaining is immensely destructive to fragile semi-arid and desert ecosystems. Utah is one of only a few states that still chain public lands. Thousands of acres of public land in Utah have been chained to date.

Why is grazing permitted in wilderness areas?

Section 4(d)(4)(2) of the Wilderness Act of 1964 states "the grazing of livestock, where established prior to the effective date of this act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture." Congress in the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980 subsequently clarified the statutory language. The committee reports accompanying that bill contain guidelines, which BLM has since incorporated into its wilderness management policy. The report language specifies that wilderness designation cannot be used as a reason to reduce or phase out grazing. New improvements such as fences and spring developments are permissible where needed to protect resources, as opposed to raising grazing numbers. Yet a University of Arizona study published in the Journal of Range Management shows that in designated wilderness in Arizona, forage allocation for grazing has increased.

Roads in Wilderness

What is R.S. 2477?

Revised Statute 2477 (R.S. 2477) is a one-sentence provision of an archaic federal law known as the 1866 Mining Act. Intended by Civil War-era lawmakers to give old-time prospectors easy access to their claims, R.S. 2477 states simply: "The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."

In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) which repealed R.S. 2477 but continues to honor valid existing rights under a grandfather clause. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt developed regulations in 1994 that would have established balanced, reasonable criteria for determining the validity of right-of-way claims made under this exemption. In 1996, however, the anti-environment 104th Congress passed a law that prohibited those new regulations from taking effect. As a result, local politicians and the mining industry in particular eagerly resurrected R.S. 2477 from its grave as a means of precluding wilderness designation and opening pristine areas to development. In the fall of 1996, Utah county officials even used it as an excuse to carve roads into the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Anti-environment state and local government officials argue that these 1866 Mining Act road claims simply provide needed access for transportation in rural areas and access to resources on public lands. In fact, the 1866 Mining Act is not needed to meet these goals. To the contrary, many of the claimed right-of-way routes are cow paths or overgrown jeep tracks that simply fizzle out in the wilderness; they go nowhere. Furthermore, FLPMA already provides for reasonable access to national lands, with public participation and environmental review integral to the decision-making process. Permitting anyone to assert a right-of-way road claim without oversight by land management agencies would take protection of valuable public resources out of the hands of the people and place it in the hands of those who most stand to gain from greed-driven, short term development.

What R.S. 2477 road claims have been made?

As many as 15,000 individual roads have been claimed in Utah under R.S. 2477, most of them overgrown two-tracks, cow paths, or streambeds with no legitimate public transportation purpose. Similar potential claims exist in most states and no national environmental treasure is immune.

Mining in Wilderness

Won’t mineral extraction be hindered by wilderness designation?

Substantial coal deposits within the Utah Wilderness Coalition’s proposal lie in the Kaiparowits, Book Cliffs, and Henry Mountains coal fields. These deposits generally are too remote from markets, and are too difficult to reach, and present extreme problems of mining and reclamation. Of these, only the Book Cliffs field has significant current production. Current coal production could be sustained from reserves in central Utah for nearly two centuries. This production would not be impacted by wilderness designation.

Oil & Gas
Although the BLM states that 80 of its wilderness study areas (WSAs) could contain oil and gas, it acknowledges that there is low likelihood of finding deposits of developable quantity. Recent exploration suggests that deeply buried Precambrian rocks may contain hydrocarbons. The depth of these speculative deposits exceeds that of existing Utah oil fields and extraction costs would be substantially greater. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Utah already has the second-highest drilling cost per barrel for any state containing significant oil and gas reserves.

Demand for uranium in the United States has fallen considerably since the late 1970s. Resulting price reductions have rendered Utah uranium uneconomical. Moreover, huge deposits of uranium ore have been opened in Australia and Canada. U.S. production is more likely to come from lower-cost uranium reserves in Wyoming, New Mexico, and northern Arizona than from wilderness deposits in Utah.

Tar Sands
Though in-place resources of tar sands may be extensive, their commercial viability in the foreseeable future is nil. Tar sands deposits in Utah have been identified by the U.S. Bureau of Mines to be lean and of only moderate quality due to high sulfur content.

Utah wild lands are unlikely to be significant producers of potash because of much larger known deposits closer to transportation and markets.

Water Rights in Wilderness

What about wilderness water rights?

The Utah Wilderness Coalition has proposed federal reserved water rights for over 9 million acres of land currently managed by the BLM. Reserved water rights rest on the principle that when Congress sets aside land for a specific purpose (Indian reservations, national parks, military reserves) it implicitly sets aside or reserves sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservation. Without the necessary water, the reservation would be meaningless.

Wilderness water rights are junior rights, and do not displace or supplant other senior rights. Wilderness water rights are subject to availability of unappropriated water. Streams are typically over-appropriated in the west, where more water is claimed than is available, and there may be little water to satisfy a wilderness water right. But the water right ensures that when water is available, wilderness gets its share.

Will wilderness water rights dry up water downstream?

Wilderness water rights are in-stream flow rights. Wilderness water rights fully respect other water rights on a given stream. They cannot disrupt existing rights, facilities or project operations. The principle of wilderness water rights says only this: that the public’s right to water for its special places should be equal to, not greater than, but surely no less than private rights to water under the state systems that regulate such rights.

Wilderness Laws

What is the Wilderness Act of 1964?

The Wilderness Act is a law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964. The Wilderness act created the National Wilderness Preservation System "to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as ‘wilderness areas,’ and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment as wilderness…" The act states that

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Another key section of the act stipulates that wilderness

Generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

What is FLPMA?

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), passed by Congress in 1976, defined the role of the BLM. Among other things, it:

   1. Directed BLM lands to be managed under the doctrine of multiple use.

   2. Repealed R.S. 2477 (though valid claims from before 1976 were grandfathered in).

   3. Directed BLM to inventory all roadless areas and assess their potential for wilderness designation.

What is NEPA?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) directs all federal agencies (including the BLM) to examine the environmental consequences of any major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment. This law does not deal explicitly with wilderness, but it is the major tool used by wilderness advocates to protect proposed wilderness areas that lack WSA status.

What is an EIS (or DEIS of FEIS)?

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is the form of environmental analysis mandated by NEPA for major federal actions on public lands. For smaller federal actions, a less elaborate Environmental Assessment (EA) is required.