Federal Wild Lands Policy in the Twenty-First Century: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
25 Colorado Natural Resources, Energy and Environmental Law Review 1 (2014), Forthcoming
59 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2013 Last revised: 14 Feb 2014
Date Written: June 5, 2013
The protection of federally owned wild lands, including but not limited to designated wilderness areas, has long been a cardinal element of the American character. For a variety of reasons, designating wild lands for protection under the Wilderness Act has proved difficult, increasingly so in recent years. Thus, attention has focused on undesignated wild lands, that is, unroaded areas managed by the principal federal land managers, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These areas can benefit from a kind of de facto protected status if they are Forest Service areas that have been inventoried for wilderness suitability and not released to multiple use or are wilderness study areas managed by BLM. In the last two decades, considerable controversy has surrounded roadless areas in both national forests and BLM lands because protecting their wild land characteristics may foreclose development, such as oil and gas leasing or timber harvesting. Recently, the courts have settled longstanding litigation by upholding roadless rule protection in the national forests. But BLM wild land protection has remained more unsettled, as Congress recently rejected a Wild Lands Policy adopted by the Obama Administration. Despite this political setback, current policy is to survey and consider wild lands in all BLM land plans and project approvals. This promised consideration, however, leaves the fate of such lands in the hands of local BLM officials and to the political vicissitudes of future administrations.
This article traces the evolution of federal wild lands policy from its beginnings in the 1920s to the enactment of the Wilderness Act in 1964 and the Federal Land Management and Policy Act in 1976 to the longstanding dispute over the Forest Service's roadless rule to the present controversy over BLM wild lands policy. We maintain that, pending congressional decisions on wilderness status, the best way to protect wild lands in the 21st century is through administrative rule, as in the case of national forest lands. Such protection, however, will require at least acquiescence from Congress, which has not been evident in the case of BLM lands in recent years.
Keywords: public lands, environment, wilderness, wild lands, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands
JEL Classification: K11, K32, N52, Q24, Q28, Q48
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation