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Is National Park Wilderness a Good Idea?

Does designating national parks as wilderness help or hinder?

If you have read any of my past columns, you know I’m a strong proponent of designating more Wilderness, but when considering whether to support including our national parks under the National Wilderness Preservation System, I have to wonder if it’s a good idea. Here’s why:

First, let me set the stage. With the recent passage of the massive Public Lands Omnibus Bill, which added 2 million acres of new Wilderness, the United States has almost 110 million acres of Wilderness, mostly in Alaska. Of that total, 44 million or 40 percent is in national parks, including a half-million acres or 25 percent of the 2 million in the Omnibus Bill. Another 21 million acres of the 110 million total, or 19 percent, are in national wildlife refuges, again mostly in Alaska.

So, in summary, of the 110 million acres of Wilderness, 65 million acres or 59 percent already were protected as national parks or wildlife refuges and for the most part (but not completely), off limits to logging, mining, grazing and other resource development. Take these lands out of the picture, and we actually have protected 45 million acres of land managed by the Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), perhaps the most threatened federal land, as Wilderness.

I’m not pretending that 45 million acres is a small number, but it sure is a lot smaller than 110 million, and it doesn’t seem extreme when compared to the 457 million acres of federal land managed by the BLM (264 million) and FS (193 million).

Now, the National Park Service is recommending the designation of another 5.7 million acres of Wilderness, including 927,000 acres or about 93 percent of Montana’s Glacier National Park.

I have to ask, is this a good idea?

I wish the process of designating Wilderness was about science and recreation management, but the harsh reality is: Wilderness designation is all about politics.

And politically, times are tough for wildernuts. In the northern Rockies, for example, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have gone without a single Wilderness designation in more than 25 years with the exception of Idaho’s recent success in getting the Owyhee Wilderness in the Omnibus bill.

Prime among the reasons for this Wilderness Drought, as I call it, is that some people think we have enough or too much Wilderness already.

With that in mind, I recently had a pleasant chat with Chas Cartwright, superintendent of Glacier Park, who is promoting the designation of most of the park as Wilderness, and he hopes to get Montana’s delegation interested in doing it on the park’s centennial coming up next year.

“It’s already a national park,” Cartwright admits. “It’s already protected. But can wilderness in Glacier serve as a building block to more wilderness?”

He views the park wilderness proposal as “unfinished business,” and he asks, “what better way to celebrate Glacier’s centennial?”

I expressed my political concerns, and he said he has also heard the same from parts of the environmental community. In response he says, “People ask why, and I say why not?”

Interestingly, Glacier’s proposal – and most, if not all, other national park wilderness recommendations – don’t include sections of the park devoted to or planned for commercial development.

“The most probing questions people have,” Cartwright says, “are, will it (wilderness designation) change how people use the park or change how we manage the park? The answer to both is no. It won’t change it any way.”

Then, again, I have to ask why are we doing it? Cartwright correctly notes that the Wilderness designation “gives us another layer of protection,” and that’s definitely true. But to me, it also makes the already-challenging political landscape even more challenging.

I want to agree with Cartwright, but I can’t. Not now, when wilderness politics is so volatile. Eventually, I’m sure Glacier and most national parks will eventually go into the National Wilderness Preservation System, but let’s do this at the end of the game, not at this critical point in the process.

I see national park wilderness as a “gimme” for politicians, or as Cartwright calls it, “low-hanging fruit.” They can designate 927,000 of Wilderness, and then say their job is done, and we don’t need any more. Meanwhile, millions of acres of pristine lands, many of which should be Wilderness, will continue to go unprotected. We should devote our limited time and energy – and limited political opportunity – to preserving these more-threatened roadless lands.

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