National Park Service Shirks Wilderness Legacy

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National Park Service Shirks Wilderness Legacy

50th Wilderness Act Anniversary Marked by Lip Service Not Leadership

Washington, DC —Next week’s 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act finds many of its basic requirements widely ignored in the national park system, as detailed in a new web-center posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Even as millions of acres of wild lands throughout the national park system remain legally unprotected, the agency is touting its devotion to wilderness in a series of gauzy videos on YouTube, according to agency documents released by PEER.

Signed on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act created a review process for identifying and expanding wilderness areas that has largely fallen by the wayside inside Congress and the National Park Service (NPS). This has led to the paradoxical situation of NPS administering more wilderness than any other agency, more than 40% of all federal wilderness lands, but at the same time–

  • Long-stalled wilderness recommendations should have increased park wilderness by more than half, putting another 26 million acres – an area the size of Tennessee – under wilderness protection. Consequently, several “flagship” parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Big Bend and the Grand Canyon do not have any designated wilderness and are “protected” only by NPS policies that can be waived or changed;
  • NPS has a growing backlog of unfulfilled wilderness duties from not assessing all roadless lands for wilderness eligibility, not converting potential wilderness into full wilderness and even not preparing legal descriptions and boundary maps for several areas designated by Congress; and
  • Wilderness has no national priority or cogent program inside NPS. Although it manages over 45 million wilderness acres across more than 50 parks, the national park system-wide wilderness management staff has shrunk to almost vestigial levels.

To aggravate matters, NPS under the Obama administration has been cutting back protections for national park backcounty lacking full wilderness status. Much of the erosion has been to accommodate off-road vehicles, new mountain biking trails, jet-skis, fixed anchor rock climbing and other forms of mechanized recreation.

“Historically, the National Park Service had been reluctant to accept Wilderness Act mandates. The result has been an institutional indifference to expanding wilderness status to roadless lands,” stated PEER Board Chair Frank Buono, a former career NPS manager who compiled the voluminous web-analysis. “It should be noted that in recent years there has been significant progress on wilderness programs in individual parks but it is not matched by any system-wide leadership, emphasis or agenda.”

In contrast to its myriad programmatic and legal Wilderness Act lapses, the principal NPS contribution to the Act’s 50th anniversary is a series of short videos costing $120,000 and extolling wilderness values, according to documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act. The 15 short videos are displayed on an NPS-maintained YouTube channel.

“These videos are awfully pretty but amount to little more than institutional selfies with little substantive value,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the PEER “Orphaned Park Wilderness” web center details every stalled wilderness recommendation and assessment while prescribing specific steps to advance the wilderness footprint of each eligible park. “We are celebrating the Wilderness Act’s half-century by highlighting its still significantly unmet potential.”


Explore new PEER web-center detailing park wilderness logjam

View NPS-produced videos celebrating wilderness

See NPS $120,000 film investment

Witness NPS stripping wilderness eligibility

Track new mountain-bike trails through park backcountry

Examine emerging park wilderness conflicts

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