Park Service Plan Muddies Wilderness Protections

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Park Service Plan Muddies Wilderness Protections

Confusing, Conflicting Guidance on Climbing Anchors and Other Topics

Washington, DC — The National Park Service is circulating new wilderness guidance that in some cases weakens existing protections, sends mixed messages and appears to violate the Wilderness Act itself, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One major departure in the NPS plan would allow fixed rock climbing anchors in designated wilderness, a position not embraced by any other land management agency.

Today ends the comment period on the plan which is in the form of a Director’s Order (a DO provides guidance to Park Service managers). This proposed DO on Wilderness Stewardship would be layered on top of, but supersede, existing agency guidance. Among problems highlighted by PEER is that the DO –

  • Authorizes fixed climbing anchors to be embedded in rock in designated wilderness, a step which appears to violate the Wilderness Act precept that wilderness lands be left “untrammeled” by humans. Moreover, NPS cannot adopt such a major policy change by a DO; any change of such magnitude requires formal rulemaking, including public comment and administrative review;
  • More than triples road corridors for unpaved roads (from the current 30 to 100 feet) , thus reducing wilderness protections while creating thorny implementation issues; and
  • Puts out conflicting, confusing guidance on topics such as cultural resources in wilderness, application of Indian treaty rights, and recommended wilderness.

“Many of these provisions are written as if the Park Service did not even realize it was opening a new can of worms with each step,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the irony that the stated purpose of the DO is to provide “consistency and continuity”. “As an example, this proposal recommends public involvement in the wilderness eligibility process, yet the Park Service just stripped wilderness eligibility from 40,000 acres in Big Cypress National Preserve without a scrap of public involvement.”

Permanent rock climbing anchors will also draw controversy because the DO does not lay out a clear process or standard for their approval. The draft DO uses inexact terms like “occasional placement” and “norm” that invite dispute. Moreover, it is not clear how climbers can get permission in advance or, with a ban on “power drills”, how anchors could be embedded into a rock face.

The nearly 50 million acres of designated park wilderness comprise more than half of all the lands within our park system and more than 40% of all federal lands within the National Wilderness Preservation System. Yet, NPS has a love-hate relationship with wilderness. For example, the agency for decades has failed to forward wilderness proposals for several major parks to the Interior Secretary or President for recommendation to Congress, conduct wilderness eligibility assessments for many parks, as mandated by NPS policies since 2001, prepare wilderness management plans, or take other steps necessary to properly administer and protect wilderness resources.

“The National Park Service has a staggering backlog of work which, if completed, would increase the wilderness footprint within the park system by more than half – yet this agenda receives no attention,” added Ruch. “This muddled Director’s Order reflects misplaced priorities and an institutional cluelessness. We urge the agency to retract this plan and concentrate on meaningful steps to meet its wilderness mandate.”


Read the PEER comments

See the NPS proposed Wilderness DO

Look at orphaned Park Service wilderness agenda

Compare NPS disregard for Wilderness protections in Big Cypress National Preserve

View PEER Board Chair Frank Buono’s paper on minimum requirements

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