In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act with a lone dissenting vote. The intent of the legislation was to ensure the permanent preservation of America’s last truly wild lands “untrammeled by man.” The storied Bob Marshall Wilderness Area was designated in this original Act. A million acres of Northwest Montana’s wildest lands would be forever protected. Lucky enough to have been born in Big Sky Country, I grew up dreaming of hunting deer, elk and grizzlies in “The Bob.”
A mere 44 years later, Congress has banked 110 million acres as Wilderness. This represents five percent of our country’s landmass -- an area larger than California. Currently on Capitol Hill, there are countless pending Wilderness proposals designating millions of additional acres, with a single proposal introduced by representatives from New York and Connecticut targeting 23 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Many outdoorsmen are beginning to wonder if their parents were right when they warned against too much of a good thing.
Not everything about Wilderness is wonderful. Hunter access is restricted to foot and horseback. Existing roads are closed and all “mechanical transport” is prohibited, including bicycles. Of course, this can be a good thing in some circumstances. However, in an age when finding even a day or two during the season to take the kids out after elk and deer can be a feat of epic proportions, the inability to drive into traditional hunting areas in vast Wilderness can deny the hunt altogether. In many cases, Wilderness is the sole domain of those elite classes who have the time and financial resources to dedicate to extended “pack-in” trips. This keeps many families from hunting and harms critical hunter recruitment and retention efforts at a time when hunter numbers are already declining.
As a practical matter, the vehicle prohibitions and mandated road closures in Wilderness block access to millions of acres of public lands to the elderly and disabled. With respect to the wounded heroes who have returned from current and past conflicts, many who are dedicated sportsmen I have had the honor of getting to know, this is a particularly difficult pill to swallow. These are the brave men and women who have sacrificed more for these lands than those of us who have never served could possibly fathom.
Wilderness takes a toll on wildlife, too. State game agencies, the ones responsible for the care of wildlife, are prohibited from conducting the most basic of wildlife management practices in Wilderness areas. For example, officials are barred from providing supplemental water sources during droughts; cutting decadent brush and overly dense stands of trees to provide new and plentiful food sources; using aircraft to conduct population surveys and recover disease-killed animals for timely analysis; and engaging in activities necessary to reintroduce species.
Arizona’s bighorn sheep population has been an unfortunate victim. An historic drought in the naturally arid state is partially responsible for precipitous population declines. Recognizing the problem, game department officials installed water tanks painted to match the surrounding landscape. Citing the Wilderness Act, the federal government required the removal of the water. The result was that the sheep still able to walk the many miles to the nearest natural water source were exposed to increased cougar predation as they were forced to lower ground. Today, the NRA, along with other conservation organizations, is defending against a lawsuit brought by radical Wilderness proponents to remove supplemental water sources for sheep in Arizona’s Kofa Wilderness Area.
Wilderness designation, either by regulation or practical impediments, also closes land to the time-honored practice of recreational shooting. Because of this, millions of acres of lands once available to shooting are now closed. This is exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), two of four federal agencies that manage Wilderness, have been on a long-term campaign to close millions of acres of public lands to safe, responsible recreational shooting, independent of Wilderness. With shooting range availability becoming a growing problem for the country’s gun owners, maintaining available public lands is essential.*
There is a question as to whether Wilderness designations result in the “best use” of public lands. The numbers seem to suggest they do not. The existing 110 million acres of Wilderness receives 12 million visitors annually as compared with 155 million acres of USFS land (not designated Wilderness) receiving 200 million visitors each year. Do the math and you’ll see that the non-Wilderness public land attracts 12 times the visitors. While the USFS manages the most Wilderness of any federal agency at 35 million acres, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison but the fact is that far fewer Americans, including hunters, are able to enjoy Wilderness, primarily because of the severely restricted access.
So, with hunter access, wildlife management and recreational shooting all eliminated or severely restricted in Wilderness, the question is whether additional land beyond the existing 110 million acres should be designated. Some public land use advocates contend that all of the land that should be designated Wilderness (land in its “natural condition… untrammeled by man.”) already is. They say radical Wilderness interests and a few congressmen are zealously attempting to shoehorn additional lands into the intentionally narrow federal definition of Wilderness.
If additional designations are pursued, maybe things can be done differently. If lands with the sort of complex road and trail systems never intended for Wilderness designation are, nevertheless, designated, is it too much for hunters to ask that those roads remain available to traditional uses? This has been suggested with regard to a long-standing proposal to designate Brown’s Canyon, near Salida, Colorado. The radical Wilderness elements have not been receptive. They run to the media with wild claims of “habitat destruction.” How these can pertain to simple requests that existing roads remain open to vehicles is difficult to understand.
With state game departments documenting growing problems associated with being able to care for wildlife in Wilderness, is it inappropriate to suggest that these officials be authorized in any future designations to do whatever they deem necessary in order to benefit wildlife populations? Recreational shooting is a generations-old practice on these public lands. Hunters use them to practice real-world hunting scenarios so that they know they are ready for the next season. Shouldn’t recreational shooting be preserved and facilitated?
The NRA is taking the lead in an effort to bring some common-sense solutions to real problems associated with future Wilderness designations. It is time for federal policymakers to take a deep breath and reevaluate how things have been done. It could be time for a new generation of “wildlands” – one that maintains reasonable access, allows for the care of wildlife and preserves traditional uses.
*Editor’s Note: Access for hunting and shooting opportunities on federal lands is one of the highest priorities of the Federal Lands Hunting and Shooting Sports Roundtable, which was created under an agreement signed by NRA and 39 other national organizations and three federal agencies. NRA was a driving force in the creation of the Roundtable. Find out more about this group, and help us by taking the Federal Lands Survey, at http://www.nrahuntersrights.org/survey.aspx.