Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The National Wilderness Preservation System, Part 3: The Promise of and a Promise to Wilderness

This is the third installment of a three-part series on the National Wilderness Preservation System. Part 1 examined the beginnings of the system by enactment into law of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Part 2 chronicled past great progress and the current great stagnation. Part 3 demands a rededication to wilderness for the benefit of this and future generations.

Not Perfect But Worth Defending

The Wilderness Act is not perfect. It is a political compromise that has loopholes that can be and have been used to the detriment of wilderness.

Old-growth forest in the Bitter Lick Creek unit of the proposed Rogue-Umpqua Wilderness Additions in the Oregon Cascades . Source: Ken Crocker (first appeared in   Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness .

Old-growth forest in the Bitter Lick Creek unit of the proposed Rogue-Umpqua Wilderness Additions in the Oregon Cascades. Source: Ken Crocker (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness.

Perhaps the most glaring loophole: domestic livestock grazing was grandfathered into the Wilderness Act to continue wherever it has occurred before an area is designated as wilderness. This compromise was necessary in 1964 to overcome objections against the act by public lands cattlemen. At the time livestock grazing was considered a minor issue. Conservationists feared more the devastating and immediate threats of road building and logging in areas the Forest Service was busily removing from the administrative wilderness system. In exchange for compromising on grazing in wilderness areas, proponents were able to pass the Wilderness Act more quickly and begin campaigning for congressional protection for wilderness areas. Today we know more about the ecological destruction caused by seemingly innocuous livestock grazing.

Mining—where claims are valid and were filed before an area is designated as wilderness—is also grandfathered into the Wilderness Act.

In both cases, the most efficient, just, and pragmatic way to address these nonconforming prior uses would simply be for the federal government to acquire the interests in these activities and end them.

There is also a provision in the Wilderness Act, though it has never been exercised, that allows water developments in designated wilderness areas at the express order of the president.

Despite its imperfections, the Wilderness Act is a wonderful law, worth defending against all attacks and attackers. Over time, its loopholes and compromises can be addressed through the political process, and the goal of “an enduring resource of wilderness” unsullied by any exploitation will finally be attained.

Necessary but Not Sufficient

Once an area is protected as wilderness, it is relatively safe from most threats (logging, road building, mining, and water developments, but notgrazing). This legislative protection is as permanent as things get in a democracy. Wilderness, however, is only safe as long as Americans continue to want it and people stay on guard to protect it.

There have been some reversals—temporary and permanent—of wilderness protection. Areas protected in the wilderness system have had their boundaries subsequently rearranged by federal politicians seeking to accommodate local interests. For example, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon moved the boundaries of the Hells Canyon and the Kalmiopsis Wildernesses in 1978 to accommodate logging roads. And there have been other desecrations. In the 1970s, the Forest Service, in the name of protecting wilderness values, brought DDT out of retirement to spray for native insects that were defoliating (but rarely killing) trees in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. (The natural infestation was exacerbated by the agency’s overzealous fire suppression policies.)

For the conservation and restoration of biological diversity and watershed integrity, wilderness is often a necessary, but not sufficient, element. The designation of wilderness (and wild and scenic rivers) on federal public lands should be viewed as an underlying designation within an overarching large national what-have-you (park, monument, preserve, conservation, protection, recreation, and so on) area.

Potential New Oregon Wilderness Areas

Oregon wildlands can be grouped as either generally forested (which includes rock and ice above timberline) or generally tree free (in the Oregon High Desert and other desert areas considered part of the sagebrush steppe, a.k.a. the Sagebrush Sea). Unprotected wildlands (de facto wilderness) of both sorts that qualify for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System cover a total of 12,090,098 acres. (In general, a proposed wilderness must be roadless and undeveloped, but the area need not be pristine.)

Forest. Most of Oregon’s designated wilderness is generally forested. Oregon Wild has inventoried 3,306,000 acres in 152 roadless areas greater than 5,000 acres in size (Map 1). They have further inventoried 749 roadless areas between 1,000 and 4,999 acres in size. All meet the minimum eligibility requirements for designation as wilderness. The unprotected wildlands in Oregon’s forests total 4,755,000 acres.

Map 1.  Protected and potential Oregon forest wilderness lands . Source:  Oregon Wild .

Map 1. Protected and potential Oregon forest wilderness lands. Source: Oregon Wild.

Desert. The only designated wilderness areas in Oregon desert lands are Steens Mountain, Spring Basin, and Oregon Badlands, totaling 210,457 acres. The Bureau of Land Management has recognized 2,685,988 acres of Wilderness Study Areas. The Oregon Natural Desert Association has inventoried another 4,650,000 acres of BLM lands in eastern Oregon that qualify for designation as wilderness. Unprotected desert wildlands in Oregon total 7,335,988 acres.

And let’s not forget the potential ocean wilderness offshore Oregon. My preliminary estimate is that there are over 42 million acres of federal public lands offshore Oregon that would qualify as ocean wilderness or for other protection.

It’s Legacy Time

The following is addressed directly to the current members of the Oregon congressional delegation: Wyden, Merkley, DeFazio, Blumenauer, Bonamici, Schrader,and (even) Walden.

Being a senator or a member of Congress is often a very difficult thing to achieve and even harder to maintain (requiring, for example, all that fundraising). In the end, what do you want to be remembered for? History has shown that those federal elected officials who supported wilderness protection are remembered favorably. Several senators and members of Congress have done enough wilderness protection to have a wilderness named for them.


Table 1 summarizes the acres of wilderness voted for by all the current and notable past members of the Oregon congressional delegation. Longevity in office is helpful if one chooses to do the actual wilderness work (for example, Hatfield and Packwood).

As the senatorial career of Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) came to an abrupt end, he gave a generally stream-of-consciousness farewell address on the Senate floor in which he named his six greatest accomplishments. Packwood’s first recollection was the saving of Hells Canyon along the Snake River from being dammed (wilderness was part of the solution). The other four: trucking deregulation, abortion rights, Israel, and tax reform.

As you are still currently in federal elective office, you still have time to leave a memorable and lasting legacy through, among other things, persuading your colleagues to protect more of your state as wilderness areas. Yes, you’ve done some other good for public lands, including wild and scenic rivers. However, wilderness is the litmus test because it is the most protective for this and future generations and therefore the most difficult politically in the moment. Once it’s done, history remembers the pleasure of the good and not the pain of the moment.

Just between us:

Wyden. Ron, if your pending—but not moving—wilderness legislation in the current 115thCongress is enacted into law, your combined House-Senate total will still not surpass Packwood or Hatfield (and it will still include that asterisk [see Table 1]). And because it is a House-Senate total, your legacy will have an asterisk. You still have time to surpass Hatfield’s Senate-only total. If you need suggestions, I have a list.

Merkley. Jeff, the last time I was in your office I saw a framed copy of the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009—your first wilderness, if not one of your first anything, vote!—prominently displayed. That was 2009. It’s time to up your game. While wilderness bills are not moving now in the Senate, no bill that wasn’t first introduced moves. If you need help, I have a list.

DeFazio. Peter, you’ve served in the House of Representatives since 1987 and your wilderness record is far short of your predecessor and about the same as some of your colleagues who have served far less time than you. It’s time to save the Kalmiopsis big time, along with the Oregon Redwoods, and more areas in the central Cascade Range.

Blumenauer. Earl, being in the smallest-sized congressional district has not stopped you from taking on an outsized role in Oregon wilderness preservation. While your leadership on Mount Hood and Steens Mountain are remembered fondly, more can and needs to be done. A statewide Oregon desert wilderness bill comes to mind.

Schrader. Kurt, frankly, I’m disappointed. You started out strong, seeking wild and scenic river status for the Molalla River, but it hasn’t made it across the finish line. Several highly popular roadless areas in the Cascade Range and the Coast Range are worthy of your support for wilderness designation. Most are out of the timber cut base, too steep and forested to be of interest to off-road vehicle users, and have no significant mineral potential. In this case, the right thing to do is an easy thing to do.

Bonamici. Suzanne, your district doesn’t have a lot of federal public lands, and much of it has been hammered by logging and roading. However, the proposed Mount Hebo Wilderness is partially within the first congressional district and needs a champion.

Changing the Colors on the Map

In my forty-two years as a professional conservationist, I’ve been involved in the establishment or expansion of forty-six wilderness areas, forty-seven wild and scenic rivers, thirteen congressionally legislated special management areas, fifteen Oregon scenic waterways, and one proclaimed (and then expanded) national monument. After each hard- and long-fought campaign, I feel good. I have found that this very good feeling turns to a very great feeling after next publication of the annual Official State Map of Oregon. There is something about seeing on the map those changed colors that signify an elevated level of conservation.

It’s time to change some more colors on the map. In Figure 1, the light yellow is plain old Bureau of Land Management holdings. The gray is the Steens Mountain Wilderness, part of the larger Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. Not shown is a half-million acre legislated mineral withdrawal (east of and about the same size as the pink and gray). Much of the light yellow should be gray. The tan Malheur National Wildlife Refuge should be at least doubled. And . . .

Figure 1.  A snippet of the Official State Map of Oregon.  Source:  Oregon Department of Transportation .

Figure 1. A snippet of the Official State Map of Oregon. Source: Oregon Department of Transportation.

Note: Some of Part 3 first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Timber Press, 2004) by the author.