In a major conservation victory for America’s remaining pristine lands, the federal government this spring extended wilderness protection to 2.1 million additional acres of federal holdings – the largest such expansion in more than a decade.
The new wilderness designation, signed into law by President Barack Obama in March, marks the first major environmental action of his presidency and the largest wilderness preservation measure since the Desert Protection Act in 1994. The legislation also extends “wild and scenic” protections to more than 1,000 miles of rivers around the nation, effectively doubling the size of that system.
It also marks the culmination of years of work by many Hewlett Foundation grant recipients nationwide who have advanced a broad range of land conservation actions: from funding scientific research on the ecosystems of roadless lands, to educating policymakers about the importance of preservation, to negotiating compromises in land use with ranchers and local public officials.
“This is what can happen when people from all walks of life – from city dwellers who cherish open land as a respite, to ranchers who know their children’s future depends on it – come together to protect this country’s heritage,” says Michael Scott, an officer with the Hewlett Foundation Environment Program who works on land preservation issues.
Wilderness designations clearly limit the activities that are legal within protected lands. People can hike, camp, hunt, fish, and ride horses in such areas, but mountain biking, logging, mining, and building roads are banned. Currently, about 109 million acres – 5 percent of the United States – is federally protected wilderness.
All of the newly designated wilderness areas are within national parks or national forests or are already owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The new law designated more than 2 million acres of new wilderness in nine states (including five in the West), increasing wilderness acreage in the lower forty-eight states by 5 percent.
Among other wild areas now protected are California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, Zion National Park in Utah, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, parts of Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, and multiple areas in Oregon, from its eastern high desert to its southern coastal rain forests. California is the largest single beneficiary, with over 700,000 acres of new wilderness.
“Organizations like the Campaign for America’s Wilderness helped in a hundred ways to make this law possible,” Scott says of one Hewlett grantee. “Its support, particularly for small conservation organizations around the country, helped those groups think through the strategies that ultimately made the different aspects of this law possible.”
Other Hewlett grantees worked on specific parts of the package. In the southwest corner of Utah around Zion National Park, two grantees – the Grand Canyon Trust and The Wilderness Society – participated in discussions with county officials, a settlement that may become a model for similar deals throughout the state.
A final key element of the new law is the placement of some of the most important and pristine lands now overseen by the Bureau of Land Management under a new system: the National Landscape Conservation System.
This is the first new federal land system created in more than fifty years. Included in its 27 million acres are places like the King Range along California’s northwest coast, all the national monuments designated by former president Clinton, and the new wilderness areas created by this legislation. Hewlett grantee the Conservation Lands Foundation provided much of the research, outreach, and expertise that led to the establishment of this new management system.