Zahniser described an awareness of our membership in the larger community of life as the profound educational value of Wilderness. He believed that solitude from civilization is a key factor in enabling us to experience this benefit of Wilderness.
Purpose of the Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act has one singular statutory purpose, and that is to secure the benefits of an enduring resource of Wilderness. This singular purpose is articulated in the opening paragraph of the Act as the Act’s Statement of Policy:
“…it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System…”
As Howard Zahniser repeatedly testified to Congress during debate on the Wilderness bill, preserving Wilderness character is the essential key to securing an enduring resource of wilderness. The resource of wilderness and Wilderness character are inextricably intertwined. Without preservation of Wilderness character, the Wilderness resource would not exist.
It is also important to note that Congress explicitly refers to the wilderness resource as singular. It recognized that wilderness is more than just a collection of other natural resources such as wildlife, free-flowing streams, etc. These physical resources are important components of the wilderness resource, but the Wilderness Act’s emphasis on wilderness character demonstrates that Congress intended that wilderness be understood as more than just a mixture of biophysical resources. By congressional decree, wilderness is a complex and unique resource in its own right, consisting of both tangible and intangible qualities. Therefore we cannot secure an enduring resource of wilderness simply by applying traditional natural resource management to various biophysical resources of wilderness. Preserving the resource of wilderness requires that we protect the overall wilderness character of each area in the System.
Public Purposes of Wilderness
As discussed above, the purpose of the Wilderness Act is singular: to secure an enduring resource of Wilderness. People commonly confuse this with the “public purposes” of wilderness referred to in Sec. 4 of the Act. The title of Sec. 4 is “Use of Wilderness Areas.” Sec. 4(b) states that, “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”
These “public purposes” are not the purpose of the Act, they are the appropriate purposes for which the public may use Wilderness. These “public purposes” are allowable uses of Wilderness. However, they are not mandatory uses. These “public purposes” or uses do not take precedence over the singular purpose of the Act, which is to preserve an enduring resource of wilderness by preserving the Wilderness character of each area in the NWPS.
If any of the allowable public uses of Wilderness conflict with the preservation of an area’s Wilderness character, then protecting Wilderness character has priority. Since the “public purposes” are allowable but not mandatory uses, a Wilderness can be completely closed to one or all of these “public purposes” if such use would diminish or degrade key components of Wilderness character. For this reason, there are several Wildernesses that are completely closed year-round to any public entry, as well as some that are completely closed to the public for part of the year.
If the public uses were the purposes of the Act, then it would make no sense to close some areas to those uses. But Zahniser himself was emphatically clear on the secondary role of public uses in wilderness: “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.”
For example, although recreation is an allowable use, it must be conducted in a manner that is compatible with preserving Wilderness character. This means the use of motorized and mechanized equipment to maintain trails and other recreational facilities can rarely be justified in Wilderness because motorized use diminishes Wilderness character. Promoting easy or convenient trail use is not necessary for preservation of wilderness character and therefore does not justify incompatible methods of trail maintenance. The protection of Wilderness character must come first, ahead of any allowable public uses of wilderness.
Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act provides the basis for the concepts of “minimum requirement” and “minimum tool.” These concepts apply to agency administrative actions in wilderness, including actions undertaken by non-agency entities with authorization through a permit issued by the managing agency. Examples of administrative actions are trail construction and maintenance, wildlife management, and fire management activities. Examples of agency-authorized activities requiring a permit are scientific research, management of livestock grazing, and commercial outfitting and guiding. Together, the concepts of minimum requirement and minimum tool are used to determine the appropriateness of administrative actions in Wilderness.
Section 4(c) prohibits a variety of specific actions in wilderness because their presence, however temporary, is contrary to the meaning of Wilderness character:
PROHIBITION OF CERTAIN USES. Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.
Section 4(c) explicitly prohibits two things in Wilderness, and also prohibits a number of other specific activities but makes two narrow exceptions for when these activities may be allowed. The two explicitly prohibited activities are commercial enterprise and permanent roads. The only exception to this prohibition is if there are prior existing rights that allow for these uses, such as a legal right-of-way.
The other generally prohibited activities in Sec. 4(c) include landing of aircraft, temporary roads, use of motor vehicles or mechanized transport, motorboats, motorized equipment, and placement of structures or installations. The Wilderness Act provides two very narrow exceptions for these generally prohibited activities, as described in the two steps discussed below.
The minimum requirement concept does not apply to the general public’s use of wilderness because the general public has no authority to engage in any of the prohibited activities listed in Sec. 4(c) of the Act.
Wilderness as a System
The 1964 Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, and directed all four land management agencies to manage wilderness in the same manner and according to the same principles and concepts as provided in that Act. Today, the NWPS is larger than our National Park System (83 million acres) and our National Wildlife Refuge System (92 million acres). Unlike these other two land protection Systems, however, the concepts and principles of the organic Act that established the NWPS have not been applied consistently across the System. This means that many of the qualities that the Wilderness Act sought to preserve are not being protected and are in fact declining and suffering degradation.
In order to achieve the Wilderness Act’s purpose to preserve an enduring resource of wilderness, it is imperative that the meaning and values of wilderness be upheld System-wide. Wilderness should be a recognizable resource, it should be managed according to the Wilderness Act’s intent that it be a place in contrast to civilization. Only by applying the Wilderness Act’s concepts and principles evenly across the System and to every new wilderness that is designated in the future will Wilderness continue to have any meaning as a unique resource in America.
Though each managing agency is governed by the Wilderness Act, they are left to draft up their own management policies and regulations. The resulting mish-mash of management styles and objectives results in a confusing and often ineffective stewardship regime. While some Wildernesses enjoy management commitment to the purpose and values of Wilderness, the protection of many if not most of our wildernesses fall through the cracks due to due to other managerial priorities and misunderstanding or apathy regarding the values and meaning of Wilderness.
Designating an area as Wilderness by law and on the map does not automatically protect it as Wilderness. It is critical that the meaning and purpose of wilderness be widely understood and respected by both the public, wilderness visitors, and those entrusted with an obligation to implement the spirit and intent of the Wilderness Act.