How Government "Wilderness" Designations Affect Off-Roaders
Despite the efforts by recreationalists to responsibly access and use public lands, encountering a "road closed" sign is happening more and more around the country. Here is what every off-roader needs to know:
Road closures and other threats to off-highway vehicle (OHV) access typically take form in federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress or regulations issued by the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The most onerous threat is when land is designated as "Wilderness." This is virtually the strictest form of public land management since nearly all forms of non-pedestrian recreation are illegal. No mechanized equipment is allowed (including mountain bikes), and trails are limited to people who travel by foot or horseback. For everyone else, you can gaze at the Wilderness from afar.
Wilderness does serve an important environmental purpose-protecting plants, animals, and America's natural heritage is of the utmost importance. But the real question is how much land needs such a restrictive designation, and if there will be access allowed through those areas. When Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964, it set aside 9-million acres of land. There are now about 110-million acres and Congress may soon add another 20- or 30-million acres.
Only Congress can designate Wilderness by enacting legislation into law. There are some compromise OHV-friendly solutions when considering such bills. One is to "cherry-stem" existing roads and trails so they do not receive the designation, thereby permitting travel in a Wilderness area. Another is creating a "Back Country" designation that would permit motorized activity on certain lands while simultaneously protecting the environment.
In recent years, the anti-OHV lobby has pursued scores of Wilderness bills in an effort to lock-up as much land as possible. When these bills are rushed through Congress, however, there is little opportunity to cherry-stem existing roads and trails. In fact, the Wilderness designation may be an intentional means to force responsible OHV recreationalists off public land.
In 2009, Congress combined more than 160 separate Wilderness measures into one gigantic bill called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. In a single act, the law created nearly 2.2-million acres of new Wilderness in nine states, including areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierras in California, Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in Idaho, Mt. Hood in Oregon, Zion National Park in Utah, and the Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico. The OHV community is still identifying roads and trails that were swept-up in the closures, for example, the Mt. Canaan Trail in Utah.
More threats are on the horizon. The current Congress is considering dozens of other Wilderness measures which, if combined into a single bill, could encompass as much as 25- or 30-million acres of land across the country! Scores of popular OHV trails could be closed.
Most of the "potential" Wilderness subject to legislation has already been sent aside by Congress as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). WSAs are millions of acres of federal lands that generally retain a primeval character, which may make them eligible for a future Wilderness designation, and the federal agencies manage them accordingly. It is important to note that Congress will "release" WSAs that do not meet the Wilderness criteria. In fact, many WSAs have roads, trails and other evidence of human activities which should nullify that particular area as Wilderness.