SALT LAKE CITY — Fifty years ago, the president of the United States made history with the stroke of the pen and ignited a debate over public lands that continues in Utah to this day.
On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. In doing so, he created an unprecedented new standard for the conservation of America’s most wild places.
The act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and established areas where lands under the control of the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management were to be managed in their most natural state.
“A wilderness,” the law said, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
A half-century later, Congressionally designated wilderness areas dot Utah, preserving iconic landscapes from Mount Naomi on the border with Idaho to Canaan Mountain on the Arizona state line. They are beautiful — though sometimes overlooked — pieces in the government’s portfolio of public lands.
A debate exists, though, over what other lands within Utah’s borders might qualify for such protection in the future.
“Those areas that have that wilderness characteristic, where you might still be able to make them a wilderness, are fewer and fewer,” said Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor David Whittekiend.
Whittekiend’s responsibilities cover some of Utah’s most well-visited wilderness areas, including those that make up much of the Wasatch skyline. In the five decades since 1964, Congress has drawn boundaries around Mount Nebo, Mount Timpanogos, Lone Peak, Twin Peaks and Mount Olympus. Hikers who venture out from their homes along the Wasatch Front visit these areas every year. Some never realize they’ve entered a special place.
“It is a challenge for us with people going up being unprepared. I’m not sure they always think about where they’re going,” Whittekiend said. “People go in, they may not have a map. They may not have extra gear and in some cases it gets them and the search and rescue people into trouble.”
Utah’s so-called urban wilderness areas, which in some cases bump against municipal or private property boundaries, present unique challenges for land managers.
They must interpreted the law to ban all forms of motorized and mechanized travel, much to the frustration of some off-road vehicle enthusiasts, mountain bikers and others. With just a few exceptions, the federal agencies are held to the same standard.
“That level of protection is necessary to preserve these places so that future generations can enjoy them the way we do today,” said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney David Garbett.
SUWA advocates the creation of new or expanded wilderness areas to limit impacts from population growth, new technologies and development.
“We essentially want to keep them in the state that they are now, and the Wilderness Act will prevent future road building. It will prevent development in these areas,” Garbett said. “Wilderness faces threats from oil and gas development. Wilderness faces threats from excessive recreational vehicle use.”
Such restrictions can chafe people who live near established wilderness areas and view them as part of their proverbial backyards.
“Recreationally, there’s still a ton that happens within the actual wilderness areas,” said Utah State Office of Outdoor Recreation Director Brad Petersen.
He relates the differing levels of land protection afforded by national parks, monuments, recreation areas and wilderness to zoning ordinances within cities.
“You need to funnel some people into high-density areas but then you also need to keep and preserve those areas there for their natural qualities,” Petersen said. “Dog Lake is kind of already like that at the top of Millcreek. You’ve got Slickrock Trail down in Moab, you’ve got these areas that are built to be high-density. So you put 85 percent of the people in there and then you create medium-density areas and then you create low to no-density.”
Petersen, who is tasked with helping guide development and promotion of Utah’s outdoor recreation resources, sees wilderness as just one component of a larger whole. In his view, the recent debate over the potential creation of a new national monument surrounding Canyonlands National Park misses the bigger picture. He believes people who want the president to exercise executive authority under the Antiquities Act and declare a Greater Canyonlands National Monument might not realize how that could change the character of the area.
“A monument actually has a fair amount of tourism activity. It draws people in and one of the things that we’ve all come to the conclusion is that we think there are better ways to manage it than just a federal designation.”
Removing public lands from consideration for motorized travel or resource extraction can and has proved politically unpopular in the past. SUWA’s Garbett contends it doesn’t have to be controversial.
“Even if we protect all of our deserving, spectacular landscapes in Utah, there will still be thousands of miles of trails for people to ride off-road vehicles. Even if we protect all of our deserving federal lands as wilderness, there will still be millions of acres available for oil and gas development. So it’s not so much a question of ‘either-or’, it’s a question of ‘what is the right place,’ ” Garbett said.
To complicate that question, Utah has millions of acres of public land acting as wilderness-in-waiting. Under federal law, public lands agencies can set aside wilderness study areas, which are managed to a similar standard as congressionally designated wilderness.
The Bureau of Land Management reports that as of 2013, it was administering 86 wilderness study areas covering more than 3.2 million acres in Utah. Both Petersen and Garbett agree that Utah residents should have a voice in what happens to those lands, although ultimately, the decision rests with lawmakers.
“As most people recognize, Congress isn’t really doing much of anything these days and that certainly goes for land protection,” Garbett said. “Tell your local elected officials, tell your congressional representatives, tell your senators, tell the governor. Let them know. They need to hear voices from people across the state saying that they want to keep things the way they are, that they want to preserve their cherished places.”
The Utah Legislature has already made clear its interest in those lands not yet covered by congressional wilderness designations. In 2012, state lawmakers passed HB148 – the Transfer of Public Lands Act. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, orders the federal government to surrender title to public lands outside of national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and military installations by the end of 2014.
In a nod to the value of wilderness, state lawmakers followed up that law with the Utah Wilderness Act during this year’s general legislative session. Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, sponsored HB160 to provide guidance on how the state government should treat wild lands in case it succeeds in gaining ownership.
Meanwhile, U.S. Republican Rep. Rob Bishop has engaged community leaders across seven counties in southern and eastern Utah in what he calls the Public Lands Initiative. The initiative is an effort to strike a compromise between conservation and development through both congressional action and local government involvement. Bishop’s effort, if successful, could better define acceptable uses across large swaths of Utah’s open spaces. It could also lead to the formal creation of new wilderness areas.
“Utah is certainly very dependent upon the federal lands,” Petersen said. “We need to make sure that we know and we’re actively engaged in managing those and that we continue to have more say in those.”
Petersen also says Utahns who feel strongly about the future of their public lands have an opportunity to provide input through the Mountain Accord project as well as Envision Utah’s Your Utah, Your Future.
Mountain Accord is meant to identify potential future impacts on recreation, transportation, the environment and the economy of communities in and around the central Wasatch Mountains. Your Utah, Your Future is an all-encompassing effort to learn how Utahns want to see the state cope with projected population growth in the coming decades.
Whittekiend, the national forest supervisor, believes the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act serves as an opportunity for reflection.
“These areas are just different, and I think it’s great that we celebrate that,” Whittekiend said. “Leave only footprints and take only memories.”
This article was written by Dave Cawley for KSL.