Wilderness Study Areas have been a hot topic lately – some politicians are trying to do away with them, while others are trying to protect them.
But what exactly is a Wilderness Study Area?
The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress in 1964, creating the strictest form of protection for wild areas in the United States. But for years, the designation mostly applied to national forest lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management to survey the millions of acres the agency oversees to look for areas that would potentially qualify for a wilderness designation.
The direction by Congress to the BLM was made formal in 1976 with the passing of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
From 1976 to 1980, the BLM used three characteristics to make judgments about whether some public lands should qualify for wilderness: size (whether a place had more than 5,000 acres of roadless areas), its naturalness (not significantly affected by humans) and its opportunity for recreation.
There was some leeway and discretion with these guidelines, but generally, if an area met all three criteria, it was considered for a wilderness designation, said Jeff Christenson, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office in Dolores.
The units considered were designated Wilderness Study Areas.
In 1991, the BLM released its recommendations to Congress whether these Wilderness Study Areas should be included in the official National Wilderness Preservation System.
Here’s where it gets complicated.
Congress, for almost three decades, has not acted on the vast majority of these recommendations, and in the meantime, the BLM must manage the areas to maintain the qualities they had in 1980. According to federal records, there are 517 Wilderness Study Areas, totaling 12.6 million acres.
In Southwest Colorado, there are a number of Wilderness Study Areas:
Cahone, Cross and Squaw/Papoose canyons; Rare Lizard & Snake Natural Area (33,278 acres)These four remote desert canyons are located west of Cortez on the Colorado-Utah state line, within the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which was designated in 2000.
Despite the fact the canyons remain relatively undisturbed and undeveloped by humans, have outstanding recreation opportunities and are rich in Native American archaeological sites, the BLM did not recommend these canyons for wilderness in 1991.
Cahone, Cross and Squaw/Papoose canyons, the BLM said, have several oil and gas leases pre-dating the 1976 wilderness study, and they would not be subject to any wilderness protections. The BLM wrote in its report that “to preserve the wilderness characteristics … would be complex, difficult and expensive.”
The Rare Lizard & Snake Natural Area, about 443 acres surrounded by roadless area, was deemed unfit for wilderness on its own but “may possibly contain wilderness characteristics when combined with the additional contiguous roadless lands,” the BLM wrote.
Menefee Mountain, Weber Mountain (13,392 acres)Menefee and Weber mountains are two prominent features on the landscape near Mancos that serve as the scenic gateway into Mesa Verde National Park.
Like Mesa Verde, both Menefee and Weber have archaeological sites that date back to the ancestral Puebloans around 900 and 1250 A.D. The BLM said the two areas offer solitude, negligible human imprints and plentiful recreational opportunities.
Yet both were not recommended for wilderness.
At Menefee, the BLM believed the area didn’t contain the values that truly justified a wilderness designation and that the undeveloped nature of the area, which is important wildlife habitat, could be maintained without additional protection.
For Weber, it was because two oil and gas leases account for an estimated 20%, or 1,338 acres, of the entire Wilderness Study Area. Also, several parts of the mountain are easily accessible by motorized vehicles, though much of the area, about 6,303 acres, is roadless.
Redcloud Peak and Handies Peak (53,835 acres)Unlike the other Wilderness Study Areas mentioned here, Redcloud Peak and Handies Peak are not in the desert but, instead, are located high in the San Juan Mountains. Yet just like the other areas, they were not recommended to be wilderness areas.
The BLM’s survey notes the outstanding wild features of these two places: several Fourteeners, unmatched views of the high country and thriving ecosystems. And, the agency said the designation would protect the viewshed of the popular Alpine Loop while at the same time not restrict any uses there.
The BLM wrote of Handies Peak that “without wilderness designation, there could be degradation of the wilderness values, which in turn could significantly detract from primitive and other types of recreation.”
Even so, the BLM report says the Department of the Interior at the time did not want the wilderness designation, saying there is nearly $5 billion of metals that could be mined from the mountains there, almost $9.5 billion in today’s dollars.
Dolores River Canyon (28,668 acres)The only sizable Wilderness Study Area in Southwest Colorado that was recommended for official wilderness protection was a 30-mile, deeply cut meandering stretch of the Dolores River known as Slick Rock Canyon.
Slick Rock Canyon, the BLM wrote, was “recommended for wilderness designation primarily because of its outstanding natural scenery, opportunities for solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation and for its ecological diversity.”
The BLM called the “scenic geological grandeur” of Slick Rock Canyon “one of the most spectacular desert river canyons in the United States.”
The BLM said the canyon did not hold much potential for energy or mineral extraction.
Time for an update?There’s been a flurry of conversation about Wilderness Study Areas recently.
U.S. House Rep. Scott Tipton is proposing to release Weber Mountain, Menefee Mountain, Cahone Canyon, Cross Canyon and Squaw/Papoose Canyon of their Wilderness Study Area status through his recently proposed Colorado REC Act.
House Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette, on the other hand, introduced legislation to designate 740,000 acres in 31 areas as wilderness across the U.S., which would include Weber Mountain, Menefee Mountain and Cross Canyon.
Mark Pearson, director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, said before any decisions are made, it may be time for the BLM to update its recommendations.
“A recommendation BLM made more than 30 years ago probably requires a bit more thoughtful review and consideration about what’s valuable in today’s world,” he said.
Pearson and SJCA support wilderness designation for the study areas in Southwest Colorado and are concerned taking away protections would lead to oil and gas development and degradation of the areas.
Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel, on the other hand, recently testified in Washington, D.C., against wilderness, saying it would threaten public safety, block oil and gas development and limit the area’s growing recreation economy.
The BLM’s Christenson said it’s true the recommendations made in 1991 may not reflect conditions on the ground.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated it would be 35 years before a decision was made,” he said.
The BLM doesn’t have any plans to update its recommendations for the Wilderness Study Areas. But, Christenson said, when Congress does plan to make a move on one of the areas, BLM is asked whether it supports the decision or not.