What is wilderness?
Wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) 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; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” [Wilderness Act, Public Law 88 577, Section 2(c)].
Wilderness areas are managed by four federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service.
Wilderness areas are designated by Congress for protection “[i]n order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” [Wilderness Act, Public Law 88 577, Section 2(a)].
How are wilderness areas established?
Wilderness areas are only designated by acts of Congress.
What is the size of the wilderness system?
Currently, there are 754 wilderness areas designated in the United States. All but six states have designated wilderness. Approximately 3% of the land in the lower 48 states is designated as wilderness.
What is the status of wilderness in New Mexico?
As of 2009, 25 wilderness areas totaling 1,651,056 acres have been designated as wilderness in New Mexico. This represents approximately 2% of the lands within the state. Each of the federal managing agencies (Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service) manages wilderness areas in New Mexico. BLM manages five: Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Cebolla Wilderness, Ojito Wilderness, Sabinoso Wilderness, and West Malpais Wilderness.
Isn’t BLM supposed to manage public lands for multiple use?
Yes. With the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976, Congress directed the BLM to manage its land under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield. Under FLPMA, “The term ‘multiple use’ means . . . the use of some land for less than all of the resources;. . . takes into account the long term needs of future generations for . . . resources including, but not limited to, recreation, . . . watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural, scenic, scientific, and historical values; . . . with consideration being given to the relative values of the resources and not necessarily to the combination of uses that will give the greatest economic return.” [FLPMA, Public Law 94 579, Section 103 (c)] Not only is wilderness a part of the spectrum of multiple use, but within wilderness itself are a variety of multiple uses, including: the maintenance of soil and water quality; habitat for wildlife; livestock grazing; outdoor recreation (including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping); and the exercise of prior valid existing rights such as water rights, mineral leases, and rights of way to private inholdings.
Are motor vehicles allowed?
No, in most cases. The Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motor vehicles in wilderness areas. However, the law does make special provisions for motor vehicle use “. . . required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons . . . as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases . . . and as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area…” [Sections 4(c) and 4(d)(1)] Consequently, you may occasionally see motor vehicles in wilderness, for example, being operated by ranchers (with authorization), BLM fire crews, or law enforcement personnel.
What recreation activities occur in wilderness?
Wilderness areas support non-motorized, non-mechanized recreation that is consistent with wilderness characteristics. Recreational uses in wilderness include activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, backpacking, camping, nature study, photography, and rock climbing.
Can I ride my bicycle in wilderness?
No, Bicycles are not allowed in wilderness areas. Bicycles are a form of mechanized transport prohibited by the Wilderness Act in Section 4(c).
Is hunting permitted?
Yes. Hunting and fishing are allowed in BLM-managed wilderness areas, subject to applicable state and federal laws. Hunting and fishing activities must be properly licensed, as required by state laws.
Are guides and outfitters allowed to operate in wilderness?
Yes. “Commercial services may be performed within the wilderness areas designated by this Act to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas.” [Wilderness Act, Section 4(d)(6)] The agency makes a finding of necessity in the Wilderness Management Plan before authorizing commercial services in the wilderness areas, and then may only authorize those services to the extent they are necessary.
Are wheelchairs allowed?
Yes. In compliance with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), wheelchairs are permitted in wilderness areas. “[N]othing in the Wilderness Act is to be construed as prohibiting the use of a wheelchair in a wilderness area by an individual whose disability requires the use of a wheelchair and consistent with the Wilderness Act, no agency is required to provide any form of special treatment or accommodation, or to construct any facilities or modify any conditions of lands within a wilderness area to facilitate such use.” [ADA, Section 507(c)(1)]. “[T]he term wheelchair means a device designed solely for use by a mobility impaired person for locomotion, that is suitable for use in an indoor pedestrian area.” [ADA, Section 507(c)(2)]
Is grazing permitted?
Yes. Grazing is permitted by Section 4(d)(4)(2) of the Wilderness Act in areas where permits existed prior to the area being designated as wilderness. According to the Congressional Grazing Guidelines in House Report 96-1126, “[t]here shall be no curtailment of grazing in wilderness areas simply because an area is, or has been designated as wilderness, nor should wilderness designation be used . . . to slowly ‘phase out’ grazing…It is anticipated that the numbers of livestock permitted to graze in wilderness would remain at the approximate levels existing at the time an area enters the wilderness system.”
How does wilderness designation impact mining?
Wilderness areas are not open to new mining. However, where a valid claim had been identified before wilderness designation, those minerals may be mined so long as such mining does not cause unnecessary or undue degradation.
Can roads, power lines, or pipelines be constructed?
Generally no. However, where a valid existing right exists, a new road could be constructed. Furthermore, the Wilderness Act allows the President to authorize reservoirs, power projects, transmission lines, and other facilities needed in the public interest.
How will BLM allow access to state or private lands within wilderness?
Where state owned or privately owned land is completely surrounded by wilderness, such owner shall be given such rights as may be necessary to ensure adequate access or the land shall be exchanged for federally owned land in the same state of approximately equal value. BLM will only approve the combination of routes and modes of travel that existed on the date Congress designated the area as wilderness, or non-motorized modes of travel if no routes existed on the date Congress designated the area, and that cause the least impact on wilderness character.
Are fires allowed to burn?
Fires are managed through measures necessary to control fire [Wilderness Act, Section 4(d)(1)]. In cases where fire is a natural part of the wilderness character of an area, the BLM will work to maintain the natural role of fire. However, all fires must be controlled to prevent loss of human life or property within wilderness or on lands adjacent to wilderness areas. The equipment and tactics used to fight fires will be designed to minimize the impact to wilderness values.
If I’m injured in a wilderness, will rescue be allowed?
Yes. Where motor vehicles are needed for rescue, the Wilderness Act allows them where “. . . required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area…” [Section 4(c)]
How are water rights impacted?
The effects of wilderness designation on water rights depends on the specific language of the legislation. “Nothing in this Act shall constitute an express or implied claim or denial on the part of the Federal Government as to exemption from State water laws.” [Wilderness Act, Section 4(d)(7)] If legislation provides for federal water rights, the effective date would be the date of the legislation. Therefore, no effects on existing uses of current water rights would occur.
How does wilderness designation affect air quality status?
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 designated wilderness areas existing at that time to be Class I Areas. Areas designated wilderness after 1977 are classified as Class II, unless they are additions to existing Class I areas. The Act also allowed the various states to designate future wilderness areas as Class I using normal state processes. All BLM wilderness areas are presently Class II, which allows some degradation associated with moderate industrial and population growth.