Wilderness Study Areas
What is a Wilderness Study Area?
In 1976, Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through Section 603(a) of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to inventory and respond to Congress within 15 years;
"... those roadless areas of five thousand acres or more and roadless islands of the public lands, identified during the inventory required by section 201(a) of this Act as having wilderness characteristics described in the Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964 and shall from time to time report to the President his recommendation as the suitability or nonsuitability of each such area or island for preservations as wilderness..."
- The wilderness characteristics that were used in the inventory as described in the 1964 Wilderness Act were:
- generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable
- has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition
- has outstanding opportunities for solitude, or a primitive or unconfined type of recreation in at least part of the area
- May also contain ecological, geological, other features of scientific, scenic, or historical value
California BLM began the inventory in 1978 and made its suitability recommendations to Congress in 1991. The inventory identified over 210 Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and made 209 suitability/nonsuitability recommendations. Since the suitability recommendations, Congress has designated wilderness for some of WSAs, has designated new WSAs, and has released others from further WSA management restrictions. As a result, California BLM now manages 80 WSAs totaling over 1,360,000 acres.
How are Wilderness Study Areas managed?
The BLM is required by Congress to manage each WSA consistent with the direction provided in Section 603(c) of FLMPA (commonly called the "Interim Management Policy for Lands Under Wilderness Review (or IMP)). In general, BLM is required to maintain the wilderness characteristics of each WSA until Congress decides whether it should either be designated as wilderness or should be released for other purposes.
The guidance for managing each WSA is provided in the IMP handbook (H-8550-1). The general management standard is that the suitability of the WSAs for preservations as wilderness must not be impaired. Valid existing rights are recognized, and grandfathered uses such as grazing and mineral uses are allowed but restricted to the same manner and degree as on the date FLPMA was approved. While many activities are allowed within WSAs, some have specific restrictions. For example, recreation vehicle use off existing travel routes and issuing new mineral leases, are not allowed. Most primitive recreation activities are allowed and are encouraged. These include hiking and camping, backpacking, fishing and hunting, rock hounding, boating (with or without motors), horseback riding, and the use of pack animals.
The Eagle Lake Field Office manages Wilderness Study Areas that are located in both California and Nevada.
Human activity within the wilderness study areas occurs mainly during the fall hunting season starting in late summer and extending through the fall and into early January.
Precise numbers of visitors are not known. In 1987, visitor use within the following WSA's was estimated to be:
- Tunnison - 3,500 visitor days annually
- Skedaddle - 4,500 visitor days annually
- Five Springs - 5,700 visitor days annually
- Dry Valley Rim - 5,700 visitor days annually
- Twin Peaks - 7,200 visitor days annually
- Buffalo Hills - 3,500 visitor days annually
(Wilderness Recommendations, Eagle Lake - Cedarville Study Areas, Final Environmental Impact Statement, 1987). Poodle Mountain visitor use was not estimated.
No recent estimates of visitor use have been made.
The 1987 visitor use estimates made by BLM staff and California Department of Fish and Game biologists were based largely on hunting use estimates using deer and antelope tag numbers, associated average hunter days per tag issued and estimates of other hunting activity, primarily for chukar. Deer and antelope hunting has not increased substantially since the 1987 visitor use estimate because, since 1979 deer and antelope hunting has been limited by quotas set for the zones in which the WSA is located. Quotas are based on herd size and herd size has fluctuated in the WSA but with no appreciable increases that have significantly increased deer and antelope hunter days.
Hunting for chukar (Hungarian partridge, a naturalized upland game bird) is also very popular in the wilderness study areas, with most hunting occurring on the lower to mid-elevation slopes. Upland game bird hunting is not regulated by tags and hunter activity varies by annual bird population fluctuations. There is very likely to have been an increase in visitor use since 1987 from increased interest in upland game bird hunting by the growing number of Lassen County residents who hunt. Hunters represent a higher percent of Lassen County residents than are represented in the population statewide.
Off highway vehicle use within the WSA consists of four wheel drives and ATV's (quads) used mainly in support of hunter access. ATV use by hunters has increased significantly since 1987 when the Wilderness Environmental Impact Statement was completed. With continually improving technology, there is more pressure to extend travel routes further into areas previously in accessible to vehicle travel altering the types of hunting experiences enjoyed by the walk in hunters and other non-motorized users.
Current management of the all the wilderness study areas in the Eagle Lake Field Office jurisdiction consists of:
- intermittent ranger patrols of boundary roads.
- installation of signage at the WSA boundaries where needed.
- refuse cleanup as needed.
- intermittent inspections and assessments of perimeter roads by engineers.
- resource condition evaluation by resource staff.
- field checks of use areas by recreation planners.
Very few other management activities occur within the WSA's due to the management direction specified in the IMP.