Important Public Land Designations: Wilderness and National Monuments
In Part 1 of our public land series we clarified the three major federal land managers: US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. All three of these land management agencies manage different types of lands within their jurisdictions. In the forest and on the BLM most of their lands are usually open to multiple uses—that means they are available for harvesting trees, grazing cows, mining, and/or recreation of all types. But both agencies and the park service also have lands that are special for one reason or another.
Lands can achieve special status for many reasons: perhaps they are critical wildlife habitat, or they may have some special recreation status like a reservoir or motorized recreation area—in which case they many have a special name, a special color on the map, and special rules for visitors. Many of these special designations can be made by the agency itself through planning processes that include public input. But the two most special designations: National Monuments and Federally Designated Wilderness Areas are made by the president in the case of national monuments and by the Congress in the case of Wilderness.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was the first time we as a species decided to put the needs of nature above the needs of man. Until this time, and for all of human history, the earth was here for us to use. By the early 1960s the pace of development around the globe became a concern and many people began to think that it would be wise to leave some portions of the planet in their natural state, thus the Wilderness Act of 1964 was born. The act itself is fairly simple in that the goal is to leave areas designated as wilderness ‘untrammeled by man.
Since the mountain bike was not invented in 1964, there is no specific mention of bicycles in the act. But the act does clearly state that mechanized transport is prohibited. Horses however were allowed continued access, partly because they are animals, partly because it was a historic use, and partly because the act would never have passed if horses had been excluded. Every act that congress has ever passed has includes compromises.
Many people have tried to slice and dice the wording to find a way to allow mountain bikes in Wilderness Areas but none have succeeded. Instead many bike advocates have worked with wilderness advocates to sort out Wilderness boundaries in a way that keeps established and legal bike trails open. With one exception, none of the Wilderness bills passed since 2009 have closed bike trails.
This is one of the important distinctions between Wilderness designations and national monuments. When a Wilderness bill is proposed by a congressman to designate either BLM or Forest Service land as Wilderness, the process is long and detailed and the public is part of the process at every step. The public can see drafts of the bill, they can submit testimony at the hearing, and they can lobby members of congress to vote for or against the bill.
National monuments go through a process that goes through the executive branch rather than the legislative branch, and in some ways is the opposite because the public input come primarily after the designation has been made. The president was given the power to unilaterally issue a proclamation designating a piece of public land as a national monument by Congress when it passed the Antiquities Act. The purpose of this act is to protect places of historic or cultural significance. Many of our national parks started as national monuments. At first the locals were angry because they found themselves losing the right to use these lands for grazing or mining or other traditional ways to make a living. But over the years most (but not all) residents have come to appreciate their national parks.
Today, many people who live near public lands may agree that a particular place deserves a higher level of protection, but they would prefer achieving that protection using legislation—a bill in Congress that would include their input and ideas as it was developed. The national monument designation rankles some residents because the proclamation process does not officially include public input.
However—and there are two ‘howevers’ involved here. The national monument process DOES include public input in the management plan that is developed to sort out exactly how the new monument will be managed. In this process, many of the same types of decisions that are made about Wilderness boundaries and other public land designations, that are part of public land legislation, are addressed in the monument management plan and the public is involved.
The second ‘however’ involves gridlock in Congress that prevents any legislation from passing. In many cases locals have been working on public land bills that would designate some Wilderness and perhaps create some other designations, but Congress has failed to pass these locally supported bills. In those cases, the public had had no choice but to by pass Congress and ask the president to act unilaterally to implement the protections they have agreed upon via a national monument designation.
Whether these special designations are achieved via a public lands Wilderness bill or a presidential national monument proclamation—there are still people that think any increased protections are a bad idea. The current thinking of the Trump administration is that all regulation prohibits economic growth, and many of the recent updates in land management and environmental protections have already been rolled back. There are many ways that these changes could affect a mountain bike trail near you, but before we head down that dark path, our next post will be about communities that are prospering precisely because they have access to protected public lands.