How we manage public access and wilderness values is one of the most enduring policy questions.
Management tools and challenges
The most powerful of the environmental statutes, the National Environmental
Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), requires that the federal government consider the
environmental consequences of its actions. One of its most important provisions
requires the preparation of environmental impact statements. The regulations
adopted to enforce NEPA and other environmental laws not only increased the
requirement for public involvement during the consideration of proposed activities,
but also increased and changed the criteria that the agencies must evaluate.
The increasing involvement of the federal government in most aspects of daily life and commerce makes NEPA far-reaching in its authority. In the eastern states, the preponderance of private lands limits NEPAs jurisdiction with respect to many land uses. In western states, however, the statutes authority is virtually pervasive. The greater number of federally designated threatened and endangered species in the arid, wide open spaces a consequence of the watersheds that have become increasingly diminished and isolated in the last 10,000 to 12,000 years also tends to increase the criteria NEPA must address in the West.
The increasing cost, uncertainty and time required to provide permits for activities in compliance with these environmental statutes has led to calls for congressional action. Frustration with the slow pace of wildland fuel-reduction projects, backlogs in the renewal of grazing permits, and demands to accelerate oil and gas exploration, for example, have led to proposals that would limit the NEPA process in order to expedite these activities.
Perhaps the most comprehensive proposal under consideration, the administrations Healthy Forests initiative (and parallel legislation) seeks to expedite forest fire fuel-reduction activities by excluding them from a number of NEPA requirements. One provision would limit to two the number of alternative actions that must be considered under the NEPA process. Other provisions would limit the legal right to appeal agency decisions to those entities that have participated in the public process, and restrict the time allowed for the filing of those appeals.
Environmental advocates warn that limiting the alternatives that must be considered under NEPA gives an agency or the proponents of an action the ability to manipulate the process. By carefully selecting the scope of a few alternatives, proponents might be able to devise a process that gives preference to their desired action. If initiatives such as the Healthy Forest proposal prove successful in streamlining the permitting process and expediting fuel-reduction projects, we can expect demands for additional NEPA exclusions regarding projects judged to be of critical public interest.
Access and wilderness
Policies being developed to regulate the use of off-highway vehicles and grant
rights-of-way on public lands also have important implications for public access
and resource development. The dramatic increase in the use and impact of all-terrain
vehicles, motorcycles and mountain bikes on public lands has brought together
an unlikely coalition ranging from ranchers to environmentalists
demanding action on the issue. Some federal agencies are considering restricting
the use of off-highway vehicles to specific areas; others are considering excluding
all vehicular access to some lands through wilderness designation or other regulatory
Early this year, the administration issued regulations governing the ability of state and local governments to assert ownership of roads and rights-of-way established on federal lands prior to 1976. Referred to as RS-2477 (for revised statute 2477), this rule featured prominently when the state of Utah and the federal government announced a settlement that reversed President Clintons executive order establishing 2.6 million acres of wilderness in Utah. Rights-of-way granted under the terms of this settlement could provide conduits for new natural gas pipelines and electrical transmission lines. Environmental advocates are unhappy with the reversal, and worry that a host of RS-2477 claims will generate a road network that subdivides withdrawn lands and limits the preservation afforded by wilderness designations.
Adding fuel to the fire, just a few weeks ago BLM determined that only those lands already identified as wilderness study areas (WSAs) would be considered for future wilderness designation. This action upset environmental activists, who assert that the mapping undertaken when most WSAs were identified 20 years ago was inadequate. Even so, the future of the existing WSAs is uncertain. In Nevada alone, despite recent legislation that finalized wilderness designations in the southern part of the state, the status of 83 WSAs remains to be determined. With Congress generally deadlocked on the issue of wilderness designations, policies regarding public access are sure to generate controversy, particularly as they exert important influences on energy and resource development.
How we manage public access and wilderness values is one of the most enduring policy questions one which affects the management of both resource development and the wildland-urban interface. Not all of these debates will prove as controversial as, say, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. But the involvement of well-informed geoscientists will be critical to helping inform the discussions and provide possible solutions.