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Know the West

Whither wilderness?


On a stretch of land along the eastern side of Colorado's Arkansas River, enormous, sand-colored rocks pile up on each other, looking as if a giant child had picked up a handful and let them dribble out between her fingers. This rock jumble is overlaid with piñon pine, juniper, and spots of ponderosa. It's land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and one special part of it, a 6,600-acre area nearly devoid of trails, is known as the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall is pushing for protections for Browns Canyon. His proposal, which he is taking comments on at his website, would create a national monument, the Arkansas River National Monument. Part or most of the monument, which would cover around 20,000 acres of BLM and National Forest land, would be designated as wilderness -- you can comment at his site on your preferred option.

Udall's push for the monument designation, which he would try to pass through Congress, got me thinking about the surge in recent monument designations and proposed monuments across the West -- and the corresponding lack of wilderness designations.

In southwest Colorado, President Obama just designated Chimney Rock a monument, after an effort to create the monument legislatively, led by Republican Congressman Scott Tipton and Democratic Senator Michael Bennett, failed to pass the Senate.

Last week, Democratic senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, of New Mexico, asked the president to consider creating two new national monuments in New Mexico with wilderness level protections. The ask came because the senators fear their proposed legislation to declare the areas part wilderness and add them to the National Landscape Conservation System will go nowhere in a stalled Congress.

In Utah, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others are pushing national monument designation in an area called the Greater Canyonlands, 1.4 million acres of red rock desert surrounding Canyonlands National Park. This move comes after an effort to add wilderness protections to the area, headed in part by former Utah Republican senator Bob Bennett, failed, and Bennett was ousted by a Tea Party opponent.

In 2005, two Colorado Republicans proposed bills to turn the 6,600-acre wilderness study area portion of Brown's Canyon into wilderness, an idea with nearly unanimous local support. (The Arkansas River is one of the most heavily rafted rivers in the world, and local rafting companies were thrilled to add "raft through wilderness" as another attraction.) Yet, because of opposition by the National Rifle Association, that bill died.

In the current political climate, presidential designations as the only way to get wilderness level protections on key landscapes.

"The current Congress we have, the 112th,, is poised to be the first Congress since 1966 to not protect a single acre of wilderness," says Ryan Bidwell, associate director of the Wilderness Society's National Monument Campaign.

Opponents of wilderness often say that enough wilderness has been designated already. And it's true that there was a flurry of designations shortly following the 1964 act, with many National Forest lands and Park Service lands designated as wilderness. But as Arizona State University law professor Joseph Feller, an expert on public lands law, notes, Bureau of Land Management property has largely been left out of wilderness designations, even though the agency does manage landscapes with wilderness qualities. This is in part because the original Wilderness Act did not allow BLM land to be eligible, and, once it was made eligible in 1976, the only significant legislative wilderness designations of BLM land have occurred in Arizona, in 1990 1996, and California, in 1994 1990. Nevada also has significant wilderness acreage on BLM lands, which have been put together through a number of smaller bills, but it still has more areas awaiting designation than it has areas of wilderness, says Feller.

"I think it is fair to say that the BLM wilderness designation process has pretty much stalled," he says.

Let's go back to Brown's Canyon. This Saturday, I hiked out with a group, including the Friends of Brown's Canyon and the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, interested in getting the area designated as wilderness. The landscape was rugged; I envisioned mountain lions tracking prey from atop a rock, and elk descending through from the nearby Buffalo Peaks, in search of winter forage.

While the area had its own craggy beauty, it was not the picture postcard you imagine when someone utters the word "wilderness."

When the 1964 Wilderness Act was passed, those postcard places were the wilderness areas that mostly got designated -- the so-called "rock and ice," high elevation, spectacular alpine locales. Brown's Canyon, like many BLM lands with wilderness potential, is a different sort of wild.

The push for its wilderness designation reflects a different sort of priority, too, one based on a desire by today's conservationists to protect places not just for their beauty, but for, say, the ecological services they provide, as corridors for wildlife. Or, maybe even as a refuge where motorized recreationists -- a user group that barely existed in 1964, but which now dominates many public landscapes -- are prohibited.

BLM identified a number of lands deserving of greater protections, including wilderness, in a 2011 preliminary report. Advocates have their own lists, too.

But only Congress has the authority to designate true wilderness.

So until the Congressional gridlock loosens up, we may see conservationists turning to other ways to protect the lands they value, including national monument designation.

Image of Chimney Rock National Monument courtesy Flickr user Sam Wise.

Image of river rafters in Browns Canyon, on the Arkansas River, courtesy Flickr user Richard Johnson.

Image of Browns Canyon WSA, looking across the Arkansas River Valley toward the Collegiate Peaks, courtesy the author.

This piece was updated to fix incorrect dates and to reflect Nevada's wilderness acreage on BLM land.