Will growth take the wild out of wilderness?
Rangers who patrol wilderness lands for the U.S. Forest Service learned yesterday they will face an increasingly tough task of protecting those special places as the population soars and demands on public lands skyrocket.
Forest Service researcher Ken Cordell told an audience of about 40 rangers in Aspen that the country’s population is expected to double in the next century, and a significant amount of that growth will occur in rural areas close to wilderness.
“We need to think of the implications of this population growth,” he told the rangers, who came from throughout the West for the Wilderness Ranger Academy, a special event hosted by the Aspen Ranger District.
Federal wilderness lands already receive an estimated 12.83 million visits per year. About 82 percent of those visits are on national forest lands, such as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness which surround Aspen.
Currently about 47.5 million people, or nearly 17 percent of the nation’s population, live within 25 miles of wilderness, according to Cordell. And almost 70 percent of the country’s residents live within 100 miles of wilderness, he said.
It’s those areas that are going to experience the most growth as people try to escape the hassles of urban life. So both population growth and where the growth occurs will increase visits to wilderness, he said.
Cordell said more than half the visitors just touch the fringe of wilderness areas, which are often vast islands of land. About 60 percent of visitors go to wilderness areas for three hours of less, or between three and six hours, research shows. So trails and natural resources might be overburdened on the fringes of wilderness areas, but the interior of designated lands might receive a lot less wear and tear.
Wilderness lands have special protections, such as a prohibition on mechanized uses like off-road vehicles and even bicycles. Mining and logging cannot occur there. They are supposed to be enclaves that are untouched by humans. Congress approved protection of designated wilderness areas in 1964.
Reducing the wildness
Another effect of the population boom could be the taming of wilderness areas. Increased light at night, noise and closer proximity of roads will all accompany population growth, Cordell noted. All will lower the “wildness” factor of wilderness areas, he said.
In fact, some federal lands that aren’t protected as wilderness score higher than many wilderness areas when it comes to a “wildness index” which ranks effects of civilization on secluded lands, according to Cordell.
Although population and visits are growing, the designation of new wilderness lands isn’t keeping pace.
Since 1964, the biggest period of growth of wilderness was between 1975 and 1984 when 229 wilderness areas were created in the western U.S., 82 in the eastern part of the country and 37 in Alaska.
Between 1995 and 2003, only 37 wilderness areas were added throughout the country.
It wasn’t for lack of eligible lands, said Cordell. There are still vast roadless areas that exist that meet the government’s definition of wilderness, he said. It’s anybody’s guess whether they will receive protection or be opened for activities like logging.
“What will happen in the future as we see political agendas unfold?” Cordell asked.
Public, Congress differ
If the public has its way more wilderness will be added. National surveys show that 53 percent of Americans say there isn’t enough wilderness, Cordell said. On the other end of the spectrum, 4 percent said there is too much.
About 27 percent of respondents said the amount of wilderness is just right while 16 percent weren’t sure.
And there is a reverse Not In My Backyard or NIMBY effect when it comes to wilderness. Cordell said 70 percent of survey respondents want more wilderness designated in their state.
So why, one ranger asked, is it so politically difficult to add wilderness? The answer, Cordell suggested, is congressional access.
“That’s the key to that – who do the people in Congress listen to most?” he asked. He answered himself by saying the “golden rule” applies – those who have the gold make the rules.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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