Andy Kerr

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

The National Wilderness Preservation System, Part 2: Past Progress Stalled

This is the second 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 chronicles past great progress and the current great stagnation. Part 3 will demand a rededication to wilderness for the benefit of this and future generations.

The Nestucca River within the proposed Mount Hebo Wilderness in the Oregon Coast Range . Source: Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild.

The Nestucca River within the proposed Mount Hebo Wilderness in the Oregon Coast Range. Source: Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild.

The Great Progress: National Stats

To date, Congress has protected more than 110 million acres of federal public lands in 765 units of the National Wilderness Preservation System (Table 1). 


The first three “zero” years (no expansion) can be explained by Congress waiting for some studies that it ordered from the land management agencies to be completed. The zero years from 1971 through 1981 are odd-numbered years, because Congress enacts most legislation in the second year of its two-year term (a “congress”). The 105th Congress (1997–1998) was the first since just after the Wilderness Act passed in 1964 to protect essentially no (just 160 acres of) wilderness. The relatively good 111th Congress (2009–2010) is a statistical anomaly in that the heavy political lifting occurred in the previous (110th) Congress but got over the finish line in January 2009. The gains in 2014 and 2015 came at a high price in that they were politically linked (so as to give political cover) to other anti-environment provisions that Congress also enacted. To make matters worse, the areas protected were not particularly threatened with exploitation. The off-the-charts year of 1980 is a result of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act.

Oregon Stats

Congress enacted this legislation pertaining to Oregon wilderness areas between 1964 and 2009:

1964 — Wilderness Act

1968 — Mount Jefferson Wilderness Act

1970 — Public Lands — Wilderness Areas Act

1972 — Minam River Canyon Wilderness Act

1975 — Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act

1978 — Endangered American Wilderness Area Act; Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Arapaho National Recreation Area, and Oregon Islands Wilderness Area Act

1984 — Oregon Wilderness Act

1996 — Oregon Resource Conservation Act and the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act

2000 — Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act

2009 — Omnibus Public Land Management Act

Oregon has forty-seven federal wilderness areas totaling 2,457,473 acres (Table 2). (A more detailed version of Table 2 can be found in Larch Occasional Paper #11: The National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon: Making It Bigger and Better.)


The Great Stagnation

There are many reasons the National Wilderness Preservation System is not expanding on the scale of times past. Here are six major ones:

A dysfunctional Congress. Congress is more politically divided now, and therefore politically paralyzed, than even just prior to the Civil War. The hopefully soon-to-be unconstitutional gerrymandering of House districts that favor one party over the other makes for a House of Representatives far less willing to compromise and also less willing to logroll (trade votes as in mutual backscratching). The pattern of population growth in the United States means that in the constitutional gerrymandering that is the Senate, the least-populated states have disproportionate power over the most-populated states. As a general rule, the former are least supportive and the latter most supportive of wilderness.

A hostile administration. Republican Ronald Reagan signed a lot of wilderness bills. Donald Trump may, but the new wildernesses will be very small and very uncontroversial. The full-scale assault on public lands by this administration has put the conservation community in a totally defensive posture, trying to not lose what has previously been gained.

A conflict with mountain bikes.In my father’s day, the primary way one went into the wild on a horse; in my day it was with a backpack; and today it is on a mountain bike. The human-powered recreation constituency isn’t keen on wilderness protection because the Wilderness Act does not allow mountain bikes. There are millions of acres of qualifying roadless land that could go into the wilderness system, but the prior existing use of mountain bikes politically prevents it. My recommendation: quit driving a natural wilderness constituency into an alliance with motorized recreationists, and allow mountain bikes into new wilderness areas with conditions.

A conflict with Anthropocenarians.There are two—somewhat, but not really—debates raging about the Anthropocene. The first debate is scientific. Have we left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene (human-dominated) era? In my view, yes we have, and the details as to precisely when is an interesting scientific debate. The second debate is political. If we have entered a new era—especially one demarked not by cataclysmic outbursts as those past but by the cataclysmic impact of humans on nature—how do we humans respond? There are increasingly two camps in what has been known as the conservation community: the we-still-need-nature-all-the-more camp and the wild-is-gone-and-it’s-all-a-garden-now camps. These latter conservationists, the Anthropocenarians, find glee in saying that wilderness is a cultural construct—as if that were a bad thing. At a time of unprecedented assaults upon nature, nature lovers are dividing into warriors and gardeners. While gardens have their place, they are no substitute for real wilderness. We need more gardens, but not at the expense of wilderness.

A relatively declining user base. While wilderness visitation is increasing to the point where the Forest Service is contemplating rationing use in some overused wilderness areas in Oregon’s Cascade Range, on the whole humans have become an indoor species.

Competing threats competing for attention.You may have heard about this problem called climate change. Understandably, this generation of environmental activists is focused on this existential threat to life on Earth as we have known it. Though climate change harms biological diversity, nature, and wilderness, these are getting less political attention. The designation of wilderness, in that it prevents logging, fossil fuel exploitation, and other climate-harming activities, helps us mitigate and adapt to climate change.