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Qs & As re: WSAs

Questions & Answers
Regarding Wilderness Study Areas

How Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) Were Identified

Congress established a National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) on Federal lands when it passed the 1964 Wilderness Act. The BLM became involved with the wilderness review process when Section 603 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of October 21, 1976, directed the agency to review its remaining roadless areas and make recommendations as to whether or not each area should become a congressionally designated Wilderness Area.

In 1980, the BLM completed an inventory identifying WSAs in Utah. There are presently about 3.2 million acres in 95 WSAs in Utah. These areas have wilderness characteristics and are being considered by Congress for possible wilderness designation. The WSA identification process involved extensive public review and comment. Each WSA was determined through inventory to possess the following mandatory characteristics identified in the Wilderness Act:

  • Size - roadless areas of at least 5,000 acres or of a manageable size, and roadless islands;
  • Naturalness - generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature;
  • Opportunities - provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation.

In addition, WSAs often are characterized by special qualities such as ecological, geological, educational, historical, scientific and scenic values.

How WSAs Are Designated As Wilderness Areas

Each WSA was studied to determine if the area should be recommended to Congress as either suitable or unsuitable for wilderness designation.

In developing a recommendation for each WSA, BLM considered the following factors:

  • Evaluation of the wilderness values present.
  • Capability of the area to be effectively managed as a wilderness.
  • The presence of any identified or potential energy and mineral resources.
  • Presence of other resource values or uses that would be foregone or adversely affected if the area is designated a wilderness.
  • Impact on wilderness values if the area is not designated a wilderness.
  • Public comments.
  • Local social and economic effects of either wilderness designation or non-designation.
  • Consistency with resource-related plans of other agencies, governmental bodies, and Indian tribes.

The BLM developed recommendations for each WSA by analyzing the environmental consequences of Congressional designation or non-designation as wilderness. These consequences were analyzed in a statewide environmental impact statement.

Statewide recommendations for all Utah WSAs were submitted by the BLM to the Secretary of the Interior. The U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Mines conducted mineral surveys on areas recommended as suitable for wilderness designation. The Secretary transmitted his recommendations to the President, and the President to the Congress. Congress will make a final decision on each WSA via legislation to add all or part of each WSA into the NWPS or to release it from wilderness review. There are no time limitations on Congress, so it is uncertain when final decisions will be made.

What is the difference between a Wilderness Study Area and a designated Wilderness?

A Wilderness Study Area is an administrative designation designed to allow these areas to be studied and considered by Congress for possible designation as wilderness. Wilderness Study Areas are managed to prevent impairment of their suitability for congressional designation as wilderness. A Wilderness is designated by law. Wilderness areas are managed under the Wilderness Act. Some uses, such as motorized vehicles on trails, may be allowed in Wilderness Study Areas, but are generally prohibited in Wilderness Areas.

In Utah, BLM manages one Wilderness Area of approximately 100,000 acres and portions of three Wilderness Areas (approximately 27,700 acres total) that were established by wilderness legislation focused largely on Colorado and Arizona and  .

What Activities Are Allowed In WSAs?

Until Congress makes its decision, Section 603 of FLPMA requires the BLM to protect the wilderness character of each WSA regardless of its recommendation. By policy, management of WSAs is generally less restrictive than management of Wilderness Areas, but activities that would impair wilderness suitability are prohibited. Examples of activities that are allowed in WSAs are: hunting, fishing and trapping under state and federal laws; rockhounding; travel with motorized vehicles on most existing routes; camping, hiking and horseback riding; staking mining claims and prospecting by the public, without use of mechanized earth moving equipment, explosives or the use of vehicles off existing routes.

Existing mining and livestock grazing may continue in the "same manner and degree" as when FLPMA was passed. Some mineral lessees, mining claimants, or holders of right-of-ways have valid rights that must be honored, even if doing so impairs wilderness suitability. These activities must be conducted in a manner that avoids unnecessary impacts to wilderness resources.

Detailed information on permitted and prohibited activities in WSAs may be found in the Interim Management Policy for Lands Under Wilderness Review (IMP), which was revised in July 1995, and is available at any BLM office.

What Will Change If A WSA Is Designated A Wilderness Area

Wilderness Areas are managed under Wilderness Act guidelines which require that the wilderness character of each area be preserved unimpaired in the future. The BLM must provide opportunities for the public to use wilderness for recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical purposes in a manner that will leave the area unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.

The guidelines for wilderness management are more strict than those used to manage WSAs. For example, new mining claims can not be staked because each Wilderness Area is withdrawn from mineral entry. Use of motor vehicles, mechanical transport, and motorized equipment would normally be prohibited. Vehicle use could continue on boundary roads, including many dead-end "cherrystem" roads that sometimes form part of a wilderness boundary. Camping, horseback riding, and hiking are permitted as well as hunting, fishing, and trapping under state and federal laws. Commercial outfitting and guiding services are normally considered appropriate Wilderness Area activities to be managed under special use permits.

How Can I Participate?

Decisions that will eventually be made by Congress will affect how a significant portion of the public lands will be managed and used by present and future generations of Americans. Public participation has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of the wilderness program. Many public meetings, hearings and written comment periods have been held since planning for the inventory began and as recommendations for each WSA were developed. Congress will likely hold additional public hearings on proposed wilderness legislation. After Wilderness Areas are designated, the public will have opportunities to participate in developing wilderness management plans to guide long-term management of each special area.

It's important that those who manage and use the WSAs work together to preserve wilderness characteristics until Congress either designates an area as wilderness or releases the land from further consideration. Before visiting a WSA or a Wilderness Area, we suggest that you contact your local BLM office. Detailed maps are available, and people familiar with the areas can provide tips to help make your stay safe, enjoyable, and compatible with WSA or Wilderness Area requirements.