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Wilderness and Recreation - An Uneasy Partnership

Updated: May 18, 2020

The U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System currently protects 757 areas covering 109.5 million acres, or 5% of the United States. In the lower 48 states, only about 2.7% of the land base is designated Wilderness.

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines Wilderness: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - Howard Zahniser. The Act further defines wilderness “as an area to be “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”

Wilderness was not and is not created specifically to facilitate certain kinds of recreation. It is set aside more to preserve primitive landscapes and protect the land itself and its community of life from development. Recreation is, however, allowed and even encouraged in Wilderness – with certain restrictions. No mechanized nor wheeled transport is allowed. Nor are motors of any kind allowed. Hang gliders as well are banned. So are all other aircraft, though this does not prevent them from flying over. Drones, too, are outlawed.

Although the original Wilderness Act did not mention bicycles, in 1986 the Act was interpreted by the Reagan Administration as banning mountain bikes which are clearly mechanized transportation.

In addition, large, organized adventure race type events, which bring hundreds of runners at once onto trails, are illegal in Wilderness.

This means Wilderness travelers must travel under their own muscle power, or by using the power of animals – horses, sled dogs, llamas, goats etc. Or they can travel by non-motorized craft where possible, allowing for paddle trips on lakes, ponds, rivers and creeks.

By definition, then, Wilderness travel is relatively slow. Given that much of our transportation takes place in automobiles and airplanes and trains and busses at high speed, the slow, measured pace of Wilderness travel is a much needed counterpoint to our hectic, race-around lives. It is also generally easier on the land and wildlife.

Hunting and fishing are allowed in Wilderness areas within season and according to state regulations, and in fact areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Teton Wilderness are very popular with hunters. Outfitters offer multi-day guided hunting trips in these areas complete with luxury backcountry camps.

One frequent problem with Wilderness is that it usually encompasses the highest, most rugged “rocks and Ice” mountain terrain. While spectacular and great for adventurous recreationists, this kind of landscape does not encourage visitation or recreation by less able or less ambitious segments of the population. We need more accessible Wilderness, closer to urban areas. One good example in Montana is Beartrap Canyon on the Madison River, a rare low-elevation, riverside Wilderness (and a BLM Wilderness as well).

Wilderness Watch reminds us that “Section 2 (c)(2) of the Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as an area that ‘has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.’ Recreation is again listed in Section 4 (b) as one of the six stated public purposes for Wilderness. It is important to remember, however, that recreation is not the dominant purpose of Wilderness, as illustrated in a Congressional statement of Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, ‘Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness. This should be clearly emphasized…The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.’”

Wilderness does however lend itself to certain kinds of recreation: Backpacking, horsepacking, llama packing, camping, hiking, mountaineering, backcountry and cross-country skiing, backcountry snowboarding, rock and ice climbing, snowshoeing, trail running, canoeing, kayaking, packrafting, whitewater rafting, bird watching and wildlife watching, and photography all fit in Wilderness. So does just sitting and soaking up the rare and precious silence.

Recreation in Wilderness does have some problems. Popular whitewater rafting rivers must be regulated via a permit system to avoid crowding and over-use, and they still get hammered. Airstrips in Wilderness bring rich clients and heavy impacts. Outfitter camps bring in large groups and trample the trails with pack strings of mules and horses and leave large caches of gear and heavily impacted camp sites. Popular backcountry campsites, often near lakes, are frequently strewn with multiple large fire rings of scorched rocks and wood ash. Trailheads can be crowded and overflowing. Human waste disposal in Wilderness is an ongoing nightmare, with pack it out requirements in many popular areas.

Anti-Wilderness groups like the so-called Sustainable Trails Coalition seek federal legislation to overturn the ban on bicycles in Wilderness, claiming they are human-powered and therefore appropriate. But bicycles are clearly mechanical and their fast potential speed does not fit in. Bicyclists claim they are “locked out” of wilderness when it is only their machines that are kept out.

Trespass in Wilderness by people on thrillcraft – mountain bikes, snowmobiles, snow motorcycles, dirt bikes and four wheelers – is a growing threat. A Forest Service with an ever shrinking budget and shifting priorities does not put a lot of resources toward patrolling Wilderness nor catching trespassers.

Wilderness enthusiasts like Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance seek to keep Wilderness from becoming just a glorified, scenic outdoor gymnasium filled with thrill-seeking, adrenaline-fueled funhogs.

Ultimately, Wilderness offers a recreational experience available nowhere else – one free of motors and fast-paced transportation. Wilderness gives people a chance to experience primitive, undeveloped landscapes where nature still holds sway. It also encourages self-reliance, where you are on your own to keep yourself happy and safe.

Future Wilderness must be designed and managed to deemphasize the human presence and to give nature that chance it needs to thrive. Our recreation can and should blend with the wild world in ways we understand and in others we have yet to imagine.

-Phil Knight

Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance


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