In general, it may be wise to heed the aphorism to “don't sweat the small stuff.” But not in the case of the conservation of nature.
Those in opposition to the preservation of wilderness, especially “small” wilderness will disparage it because it is small. If the source is someone who generally disdains wilderness of any size, their arguments may be dismissed. However, there are some in the conservation community who erroneously contend that wilderness has to be at least 5,000 acres (~8 square miles, a square 2.8 miles on a side, or ~5,000 American football fields) in size. These concerns are generally that (1) these small areas don’t provide the “outstanding opportunities” for solitude or primitive recreation required for wilderness designation, and/or (2) small areas are not manageable by the responsible agency.
Of the 766 wilderness areas designated by Congress since 1964, 48 (6.2 percent or approximately 1 of every 16, not including island wildernesses) are freestanding wilderness areas smaller than 5,000 acres (see Table 1). While most such areas are in the eastern United States, four are in the wide-open American West: the Menagerie Wilderness (4,800 acres) and the Lower White River Wilderness (2,870 acres) in Oregon, Jumbo Springs (4,631 acres) in Nevada, and Baboquivari Peak (2,040 acres) in Arizona.
In the uncharacteristically elegant prose of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress first defined wilderness in general and then more specifically:
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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. [16 U.S.C. 1131(c), emphasis added]
The statutory 5,000-acre figure is a guideline, not a bottom line. Congress is the ultimate arbiter of whether to designate a smaller roadless area as wilderness. In fact, small wilderness areas help perpetuate larger natural systems essential for fish and wildlife habitat, stream flow, and clean drinking water. And federal land management agencies are managing small and irregular-shaped wilderness areas across the country (see Maps 1 and 2) without incident. Congress has also designated contiguous multi-unit wilderness areas of which at least one of the units is smaller than 5,000 acres.
Opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation are not necessarily proportional to wilderness size. Admittedly, the recreational value of wilderness can decrease in areas smaller than 5,000 acres (approximately 8 square miles). One can hike through a 1,000-acre roadless area in an afternoon and miss having a true wilderness experience, as one may never be too far from roads, development, clear-cuts, and other sights, sounds, smells, or signs of human existence. But there are exceptions—areas where the topography and grandeur of nature conspire to create a sense of solitude and wonder in spite of the area’s small size (Map 2).
Notably, the Wilderness Act of 1964 does not require areas to offer opportunities for solitude. In fact, it only mentions the word solitude once, where it requires a wilderness to have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Solitude is a wilderness value, not a wilderness requirement.
There is no comparable congressional alternative to wilderness designation. Although they have important purposes, alternative landscape designations often have loopholes that allow logging. In other cases, Congress has designated alternative special management areas that are as restrictive as wilderness insofar as logging goes but are more permissive of other harmful land uses, such as mining and roading.
If one wants an area to be wilderness in fact, then designate it as wilderness in law regardless of its size.
[This post is adapted from an essay in my book Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Chapter 4). If you want to go deeper, see my Larch Occasional Paper #8 entitled “Small” Wilderness: No Big Deal. Special thanks to David Stone of Wildland Photography in Eugene, Oregon, for use of his photographs.