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Alternatives to Wilderness Act could broaden land protection

by Gary Sprung
Editor, IMBA Trail News

In 1984 millions of acres of federally designated Wilderness were closed to bicycling. Since then, bicyclists have tried to find policy solutions that will both protect land and provide opportunities for mountain biking. IMBA members and conservationists have shared many ideas about the Wilderness bicycle ban and alternatives to Wilderness. I have developed he following proposals. They have not been ratified by the IMBA board. They are presented here to stimulate thought and feedback.

The public land protection method traditionally employed in the United States, Wilderness designation, effectively preserves land, but it prohibits bicycling. This is causing bicyclists to question further Wilderness designations, resulting in a decrease in support for an important political cause which needs all the friends it can get.

IMBA is encouraging the development of additional legal tools for protecting public lands from inappropriate development. In particular, Congress should enhance the existing national conservation area (NCA) and national recreation area (NRA) land management categories.

Many more places warrant Wilderness protection. However, new Wilderness proposals should be evaluated with concern for the recreation uses that will be foregone. If preservation advocates wish to protect more places, they can often gain support by allowing more diverse recreation on the land. Alternative tools could protect larger landscapes, including lands that would not qualify for Wilderness designation.

Congress has already designated many landscapes as NCA's and NRA's, but those legislative acts provided little direction to managing agencies. New roads are often allowed within these land units, making some NCA's and NRA's little more than lines on paper.

Wilderness, in contrast, is well defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act is called an "organic act," which is a legislative term for a law which establishes comprehensive land management principles. All Wilderness areas prohibit mining, logging, roads, buildings, dams and most other development. Similar organic acts have been passed to define the management of national forests, national parks, wild rivers, and BLM lands. Organic act legislation for NCA's and NRA's would fix the glaring inadequacy of these alternative designations.

The following descriptions propose management policies for NCA's and NRA's.


a proposal for an organic act

The purpose of National Conservation Area designation is to protect natural landscapes from inappropriate development, promote ecological restoration, and allow recreation opportunities which are compatible with ecological integrity.

Many natural areas on our public lands are not roadless and thus do not qualify for Wilderness designation but nonetheless deserve protection to maintain critical ecological values. Under this proposal, National Conservation Areas need not be roadless. Rather, they should be "substantially natural." Therefore, they may encompass larger landscapes than would be eligible for Wilderness protection.

NCA designations should direct land managers to restore natural ecosystems. In contrast, in Wilderness areas the principle is to not take action. So an NCA inherently implies a greater degree of management. The NCA proposal would also allow managers to promote stewardship by livestock operators, whereas Wilderness designation is legally required to not affect on livestock management.

NCA's, if properly legislated, can protect the land while calling for different management emphasis. They will diversify our legal system for protecting landscapes, giving us better tools for different circumstances. By allowing more diverse recreation, they will significantly expand the constituency for protecting lands from excessive development.

NCA management principles

NCA designation will:

direct the land management agency to make conservation and restoration the top management priority, allowing recreation to the extent it is compatible with ecological integrity

promote wildlife conservation and recovery

encourage restoration of natural ecosystems

promote environmental education

allow livestock grazing, with extra emphasis on good stewardship

prohibit mining

prohibit logging

prohibit dams

prohibit buildings

prohibit building of new roads

encourage elimination of existing roads

allow most non-motorized recreation, including bicycling and horse riding, on designated routes, where these uses are compatible with conservation goals

allow motorized recreation on existing, designated routes, only where this use is compatible with conservation goals.


a proposal for an organic act

The purpose of the National Recreation Area designation is to provide protected landscapes where recreation opportunities are abundant and well managed.

Recreation has become the most important use of the public lands. The USDA Forest Service estimates that recreation now contributes about 75% of the economic benefits generated on the national forests. Outdoor recreation on our public lands can be a very positive influence on society. It improves and builds human health, connects people to Nature, and inspires spirituality.

The quality of outdoor recreation is diminished by most development. Few people seek logging clearcuts as a place to hike, ride or drive. Recreationists prefer more natural settings.

Recreation also can have severe impacts on land, wildlife and water, especially when the use is poorly managed. NRA designation would mandate and empower better management to avoid such impacts.

We need to give some areas of the landscape greater protection than is afforded by the normal principles of multiple-use, sustained yield, and something-for-everyone which apply to the nation's national forests and BLM lands.

NRA's, if properly legislated, can protect broad landscapes while allowing recreational uses which would not be appropriate in Wilderness. They can expand the tools available for resource and land conservation, and also diversify the constituencies of people supporting better land protection and management.

NRA management principles

NRA designation will:

direct the land management agency to make recreation the primary use, while prohibiting major development

encourage environmental conservation

direct land managers to employ methods to avoid or mitigate conflict between recreation and ecosystems

allow non-motorized recreation, including bicycling and horse riding on designated routes

allow motorized recreation on designated routes

allow livestock grazing

promote environmental education

promote human health through outdoor recreation

encourage management of well planned trail and road systems which are physically stable and environmentally sound

prohibit logging

prohibit mining

prohibit dams

prohibit fully enclosed buildings (picnic tables, lean-to's, outhouses okay) except allow designated visitors centers.

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