The Utah Wilderness Problem

The fight nationally over how much federally-managed land to designate as wilderness is one of the most divisive public lands management issues. In Utah, the debate over how much BLM-managed land to designate has been particularly intense for nearly two decades.

A major reason for the high decibel level of this debate is that, perhaps more than any other public land issue, whether to designate land as wilderness crystallizes the radically different philosophies that underlie many other public lands issues as well. On one side are the wilderness advocates who have a nearly religious belief that "nature knows best" and that if man and his activities are virtually eliminated on a particular parcel of land, that nature will achieve an ideal and balanced ecosystem.

In contrast to this preservationist approach are those who feel that active, multiple use management to achieve a range of goals and objectives is the best way to provide the greatest amount of public benefits. They subscribe to the classic definition of resource conservation: "providing the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run." For these traditional conservationists, excessive wilderness designation is irresponsible management of the publics lands and resources.

Listed below are some basic documents and analyses to help you understand the wilderness issue generally and the issue in Utah specifically.

1. The Basic Law. The text of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

2. The "Balance of Nature" is discredited science. One of the basic premises of the Wilderness Act, that if man does not affect a parcel of land, nature will somehow establish and maintain an ideal balance. While this was conventional science in 1964, this has been discredited by more recent scientific research. The New York Times published an excellent summary of the revised science. (pdf file)

3. The "Pristine Myth." Closely related to the discredited balance of nature theory highlighted above is the myth that the North American continent was "pristine" at the time of first white contact. In fact, research in the decades since the Wilderness Act was passed have greatly expanded and improved our understanding of how significantly and successfully Native Americans were in manipulating their environment. The assumption to the contrary which is explicit in the Wilderness Act can now be recognized as racist. What the first white explorers and settlers encountered was, in fact, a largely human-managed environment and not "pristine wilderness."

The Utah Wilderness Issue

1. Commonly Asked Questions About Utah Wilderness. This classic critique of the demands of Utah Wilderness activists provides a quick analysis of some of the key issues in a q and a format.

2. BLM Wilderness Re-inventory Critique. Much of the argument for more wilderness floated by Utah wilderness advocates depends on the results of a "re-inventory" done by the BLM which "found" an additional 2 million acres of land with "wilderness character." This critique, done by the Utah Association of Counties, shows that this re-inventory was completely unreliable and largely politically motivated. Click here to view this file.

3. The Recreational Opportunity Spectrum (ROS). Wilderness designation is primarily a recreation management designation, not a land protection designation. Consequently, if proposed wilderness areas are to be evaluated as Congress intended in the Wilderness Act, it is essential that the guidelines of a recreation management standard called the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) be applied to them.

One of these guidelines has a particularly significant impact on proposed wilderness areas: as a general rule, a wilderness recreation experience is not possible within three miles of a road or trail used by motorized vehicles. When this guideline is applied to most proposed wilderness areas, they are disqualified. This is particularly true of areas on BLM-managed land and especially true of areas proposed by wilderness advocacy groups.

We have posted several items on this site which will help multiple use advocates better understand the ROS guidelines and how they apply to wilderness. They also apply these ROS 3 mile buffer guidelines to the Utah Wilderness problem. Click here for an index of this material.