Alternatives to Wilderness?

In recent years it has become fashionable for conservationists to substitute and promote other land classification in place of wilderness designation. Wilderness is “passé” so we are told, even though it is the “gold standard” for land protection.

In a recent white paper, The Wilderness Society outlined some of these alternatives such as National Recreation Area, Conservation Management Area, Special Management Area (Newberry Crater), National Scenic Area, Wildlife Management Area, and other titles.

While such designations may confer greater flexibility than wilderness designation,  and often more protection than no special label, since there is no “organic act” for such classifications, there is no consistent policy protection for such designations. The degree of protection provided can vary and depends entirely on the original language that created such areas. By contrast, with Wilderness designation, we know what we are getting.

Many of these designations allow uses and activities that are non-conforming in designated wilderness. For instance, the Lolo National Forest has proposed logging the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area near Missoula, Montana. Logging also occurs in other NRAs including the Sawtooth NRA in Idaho, Hells Canyon NRA in Oregon, among others. Such logging would not be permitted in designated wilderness.

However, TWS was careful to note “These designations are often referred to as ‘alternatives to wilderness.’  This description is not accurate because other designations are often applied to landscapes that are worthy of protection but are not appropriate for wilderness designation. “

In other words, TWS recognizes that these alternative designations should not be advocated as an alternative to wilderness designation.

Unfortunately, we find that many conservation groups automatically go to alternatives classification for land that is suitable for wilderness. Typically, the alternatives are offered before any legislation is finalized, and typically to reduce the animosity or opposition from a “user” groups like ranchers, mountain bikers or snowmobilers.

An example, the advocacy of “Wildlife Management Area” designation for portions of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalohorn WSA in the Gallatin Range of Montana is the use of lesser protection instead of promoting wilderness classification. The HPB area is the most important wildlife habitat in the entire Gallatin Range, and advocating for an alternative designation fails to fully protect the superb wildlands/wildlands value of these lands.

This contrasts with the strategy that was common in the past with successful wilderness campaigns. For instance, when the North Cascades were under consideration for national park and wilderness status, a compromise was reached to create a national recreation area for Ross Lake adjacent to the park, even though the lands qualified as wilderness.

But park/wilderness advocates did not start with the proposal to have a national recreation area, rather that was a compromise they accepted when their attempt to include these lands in the Pasayten Wilderness area did not fly.

Similarly, when the 1994 California Desert Wilderness bill was passed, one of the compromised that was accepted (not promoted by conservationist) was the establishment of a Mojave National Preserve. Conservationists had been promoting a national park, but opposition from hunters, ranchers, and conservative politicians precluded the park designation and preserve (which allows hunting among other things) was accepted in the end. And despite this political setback, a considerable proportion of Mojave National Preserve is designated wilderness.

Today, however, conservationists are often ready to abandon advocacy for wilderness for other classifications, often the result of “collaboration” which tends to result in less wilderness and thus less protection.

For example, the 2014 Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act designated the majority of the roadless lands along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana as a 208,000 acre “Conservation Management Area”.

The Conservation Management Area designation was settled on by a collaborative group that included wilderness advocacy groups like The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and other groups. Settling for something less than wilderness short-charged an area that during the Forest Service’s RAREll evaluation rated the wilderness qualities of the Front the highest of any area in the United States outside of Alaska. In other words, if any place in the lower 48 states should be designated wilderness, it is the lands along the Rocky Mountain Front.

How does Conservation Management Area differ from wilderness? For instance, the Conservation Management Area language allows for “constructing a temporary road on which motorized vehicles are permitted as part of a vegetation management project in any portion of the Conservation Management Area located not more than 1⁄4 mile from the Teton Road, South Teton Road, Sun River Road, Beaver Willow Road, or Benchmark Road”. “Vegetation management” is a euphemism for logging.

It also allows use of motorized vehicles “for administrative purposes (including noxious weed eradication or grazing management.” Again, this is not typically permitted in a designated wilderness.

The legislature also allows mountain biking and even requires creating more mountain biking trails. “Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with interested parties, shall conduct a study to improve nonmotorized recreation trail opportunities (including mountain bicycling) on land not designated as wilderness within the district.”

Since the area designated as Conservation Management Area consists of the less steep and in general better wildlife habitat, this requirement will create more human disturbance in the most important wildlife habitat of the Rocky Mountain Front.

Anyone who argues that the Conservation Management Area is the equivalent of wilderness designation is misleading the public.

While the Heritage Act did designate 67,000 acres of new wilderness adjacent to the Bob Marshall and Lincoln Scapegoat Wildernesses, however, the same bill released the Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek wilderness study areas in Montana from further study for wilderness designation to allow potential energy development.

The organizations that supported Conservation Management Area would suggest that without a compromise on the designation, no legislation would have been introduced. Maybe, maybe not. There are many instances in conservation history where strong advocacy for maximum protection of lands were successful even as some naysayers predicted failure

Another example of capitulation by wilderness advocates is the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club which has given up on protecting the Maiden Peak Roadless area as wilderness. The Maiden Peak is the largest unprotected roadless area in the Cascades. But the Sierra Club has decided that opposition from “stakeholders” primarily mountain bikers has caused them to advocate for a “conservation area” instead of wilderness, though the Maiden Peak area clearly qualifies as wilderness.

The Sierra Club goes on to suggest that mountain bikers are “strong environmentalists” and “active stewards of the trails they use.”

Here the Sierra Club clearly conflates recreation use with conservation.  A  “strong environmentalist” would be advocating for the strongest protection for the land—which in this case is wilderness designation, not whether they can personally “use” the land.

It is worth noting that in previous wilderness debates, conservationists did not immediately fold and concede to non-wilderness designations or options.

For instance, during the debate over the creation of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in the 1970s, one of the major issues was whether to leave what was known as the “Slough Creek Corridor” out of the wilderness proposal.

At that time, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and even jeeps were traveling up the Boulder River and over through upper Slough Creek and eventually to Cooke City, Montana. The “corridor” split the proposed AB Wilderness into two segments with an eastern “Beartooth Unit” and a western “Absaroka” unit.

This motorized group was opposed to closing this corridor to motorized travel.  And bowing to this pressure, some wildlands advocates were willing to reduce the wilderness proposal, leaving out the Absaroka portion west of the Slough Creek Corridor. Fortunately, advocates for a single large wilderness nearly million acre wilderness won out, and today the AB Wilderness is one of the largest protected areas in the United States. To read more about this issue see

The point is not that a compromise occurs—all politics is about compromise. Rather it is when that compromise occurs.  As David Brower often reminded more timid conservationists, “Our role is to stake out the high ground and let the politicians cut the deals.”

Ironically it was Bob Marshall who stated that one of the reasons he founded the Wilderness Society in 1935 was because too many people were willing to compromise wilderness away. He wrote “We want no stragglers, for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval which should never have been lost… Above all, we do not want in our ranks people whose first instinct is to look for compromise.”

As conservationists, we have a moral obligation to fight for wilderness designation for all lands that can possibly qualify for designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. There will be compromises, but we should not be the ones promoting them.


  1. Greg McMillan Avatar
    Greg McMillan

    Back to David Brower. He once said (perhaps not verbatim) “I do not mind compromise, I just do not want to be the first person in the room to suggest it.”

  2. Oliver Starr Avatar

    I was a professional mountain biker not long after the birth of the sport and at the beginning of its explosion as a hobby. The new bikes enable far to many people to access remote areas. It’s only a matter of time before they start arguing for battery powered models.

    I am shocked and disappointed at what I’ve seen as the sport has developed; a cancer of illegal trail building, cross-cutting, rutting, exploitation and damage to existing watercourses…

    Today’s Mountain Bikers as strong environmentalists? In general me thinks not.

    1. Monica Craver Avatar
      Monica Craver

      The motorized (battery powered) e-MTBs are already on the trails. You can barely tell the difference between a pedal mountain bikes and a motorized ones. The illegal trail building continues all over North America.

      The damage that mountain bikers are doing to wilderness is endless, and very poorly managed/enforced.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      +1 Oliver!

      And even though its been awhile since this challenge, a BIG THUMBS UP, Oliver, for tossing it out there. Sadly the Golden Rule is NOT a part of a trapper’s mentality.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    What bothers me is that in these compromises, “all” mountain bikers, “all” snowmobilers, etc. are not “all” strong environmentalists.

    As we see with all human activity, some will be careful, and a great many more will carelessly abuse the privilege.

    There’s compromise, and then there’s bowing to pressure and giving away the entire store. We’ve seen too much of this already, and *surprise!* it hasn’t worked.

    When will we learn? Those who are pro-wilderness, wildlife and the environment are always the ones who do the compromising.

    I’ve been mulling these thoughts over re George’s last post too.

    1. Greg McMillan Avatar
      Greg McMillan

      It is the sorrow of my life that progressives have never learned to bargain. We are, for the most part, honest and when we begin a negotiation we state what we want and leave it at that. The opposition always puts out some wild vision of what they want and then settle for what it was that they wanted in the first place.

      I was born on a ranch in Central California and my father traded horses…need I say more????

  4. Monica Craver Avatar
    Monica Craver

    Compromise only decides how much we are willing to lose never how much we are able to gain. To accept compromise as legitimate strategy, conservationist David Brower argued, that as conservationists we need to be unapologetic about our goals and our beliefs, that once we trade on those, we lose not only our campaigns, but our virtue and our credibility as well.

    In so many environmental arenas, David Brower also said, every win is temporary, every loss permanent. He was quick to remind us, knowing too well the cost of compromise: a half, of a half, of a half…a friend said…leaves you with nothing.

  5. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    American expansionism is still part of the cultural paradigm. There will always be some group(s) that wants access, mostly for profit, to our sacred lands or some other countries lands for that matter. Protection of public land must be very thorough because the government has been responding to moneyed interests for a long time. Even land withdrawals are not necessarily safe.

    EG: In the past over 100,000 acres of BLM administered lands in California, once known as the Temblor/Caliente Cooperative Wildlife Management Area, really only had about one half of one percent of the land actually protected from grazing and minerals extraction in the form of fenced biological study plots and wildlife watering device enclosures. While it was technically true that the lands could not be sold, it could still be leased for livestock grazing and oil and gas development and the mining of silicon bearing clay (cat litter). When the Reagan/Watt administration took over they could not stand any land withdrawals and canceled that status so that the lands could be sold.

    Thus started a new era for the BLM in the 80’s They hired public relations specialists and renamed their planning system. We still see some of these names being used today. The planning system looks like a shiny ‘silver plated bucket’ but it has holes in it that allow purported protections to leak out.

    It was only through the diligent and constant pressure of the Audubon society, some private donors, one iconoclast government biologist and the TNC that the Carrizo Plain National Monument came into being. Even the designation of National Monument is not completely safe.

    Wilderness is really a great gift. It provides a gateway to spiritual development which is something that the U.S. is dearly in need of. A natural area with all its component parts provides an archetypal template of what our various ecosystems can be. Running rough shod over the wilderness landscape may be exhilarating for the few and bring back sordid memories of past conquest and provide temporary support for some form of capitalism but it cancels out the possibility of achieving a better form of human being.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      Manifest Destiny, eh?

    2. Hiker Avatar

      Very well said. Your inclusion of spiritual values is so important. Thank you.

  6. Kayla Avatar

    Now do know some local Mountain Bikers and these people are always … always arguing against places being made ‘Wilderness’. I personally LOVE Wilderness and do think more of these back unroaded wilds should be made into declared wilderness areas. It is really sad to me that how many of these mountain bikers, snowmobilers, etc. cannot get off of their bikes and machines and go for a simple long hike and camp in the woods. They have to have their mechanized transport nearby. Sad!

    A local bike shop recently always had some Anti-Wilderness flyers posted on there doors which people saw when they came into their business.

    I do agree completely with you that all of these mountain hikers, snowmobilers, etc. are Not stong environmentalists.

    How few people out there are actually willing to step away for a good period of time from this crazy and lunatic type of modern society which is seemingly just all for economics and the military industrial complex.

  7. Jeff Avatar

    It seems the inability to compromise sunk the WPLI for WSAs for the Palisades in Teton County, WY. After watching the Outdoors Idaho episode on the Sawtooth Recreation Area and its compromises, it seemed hardliners undermined any protection for the Palisades, Mt. Leidy Highlands and other WSAs. Wouldn’t it be better to have compromised and allowed some protections than none?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner