December 2016 | Volume 22, Number 3
by NANCY ROEPER
The agency heads of the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and US Geological Survey (USGS) signed 2020 Vision: Interagency Stewardship Priorities for America’s National Wilderness Preservation System at the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act Conference in October 2014. This interagency vision for the future of the US National Wilderness Preservation System, based largely on the results of a 2014 wilderness managers’ survey, contains 19 objectives grouped under 3 basic themes: Protect Wilderness Resources (Protect), Connect People to Their Wilderness Heritage (Connect), and Foster Excellence in Wilderness Leadership and Coordination (Lead.)
Following the 50th anniversary, the interagency Wilderness Steering Committee (wilderness leads for the four federal wilderness management agencies and the USGS) established an interagency team of 24 employees subdivided into three teams to focus on the three themes of the 2020 Vision. The team developed a draft 2020 Vision Implementation Plan (Plan) consisting of a series of action items that they agreed would be the highest priority actions that the agencies should implement to achieve the goals of the 2020 Vision.
At the 2015 Wilderness Workshop in Missoula, Montana, in October 2015, the team invited the public to comment on the draft Plan during sessions explicitly designed to capture their input. These comments were submitted to the committee, who incorporated them into the draft Plan as appropriate. The Wilderness Policy Council (policy level representatives of the four wilderness management agencies and research representatives from the Forest Service and the Department of Interior) reviewed the Plan and approved a four-week internal agency review in April 2016. Based on the approximately 450 comments submitted, the committee produced a revised draft Plan.
In early June 2016, with the approval of the council, the committee notified individuals and organizations that participated in the 50th Anniversary Conference and those that participated in the October 2015 Wilderness Workshop that further input would be sought on the draft Plan during a four-week public review period. The committee encouraged the public to submit comments via PEPC (the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment site). The committee also posted information about the public review on the wilderness.net website and held three webinars in June to explain the process used to develop the draft Plan. In total, the committee received nearly 1,100 comments from 830 individuals represent-ing either organizations and/or themselves.
Of these, 177 were general comments that did not relate to a specific objective or action item of the Plan. These included many statements expressing general support for wilderness and keeping wilderness wild, untouched, and for future generations. Others expressed support for expanding partnerships, clarifying responsibilities and/or adding field offices as responsible parties for achieving action items, increasing the number of wilderness rangers, and recognizing the importance of special provisions for wildernesses based on their designating legislation.
Nearly 600 comments contained identical or almost identical language expressing concern that the Plan diminishes the central importance of wildness to wilderness character because many of the action times would allow various manipulations in wilderness for the benefit of other values (e.g., naturalness) at the expense of wildness. They felt the Plan should treat all wilder-nesses as areas where humans won’t manipulate them at all and ignores the importance and decline of the professional wilderness stewards within the federal agencies. The Plan should recognize that professionally trained wilderness rangers within the agencies are the ones who will provide long-term protection and care, and the Plan should state that additional research in wilderness must be conducted with methods that respect the wilderness and without motorized/mechanized means or permanent structures and installations.
Of the 131 comments specific to a theme, objective, or action in the Plan, more than 60 related to the Protect theme. These included concern that over time the agencies have come to rely on generally prohibited means to conduct stewardship activities in wilderness and the acceptance of ecological interventions as reflected in the many action items that refer to invasive species management, monitoring, fire management, and other items for managing or restoring wildlife or ecological conditions. It was also suggested that the Plan include a definition of wilderness character, and that the Plan measure success based on measurable wilderness character and wildness conditions rather than the quantity of plans, agreements, databases, personnel training, and so forth.
The committee also heard that we should include collaboration and partnerships with the states on many action items associated with the fish and wildlife conservation objective and coordinate more closely with the National Wildfire Coordination Group. There were concerns about restoring fire to ecosystems, including the fear that prescribed fire is yet another manipulation of the wilderness landscape and that responding to climate change may lead to additional reasons to intervene in wilderness.
Almost 40 comments related to the Connect theme. Many commenters supported expanding Leave No Trace education and messaging. There was interest in designating more areas as wilderness, as they are so valuable to the American public, and there was a suggestion to make sure that hunting and fishing were included as traditional, cultural, and recreational use of wilderness. There was also concern about commercializing wilderness as we seek new ways to support wilderness stewardship. Numerous commenters were concerned about the degradation of trails, especially as this is viewed as the primary means of public access to wilderness. While there was significant support for providing more volunteer training and other partner opportunities, others warned the committee to beware of giving too much power to partners and of replacing professional staff with volunteers and partners.
Approximately 30 comments focused on the Lead theme. These included the need for more emphasis on expectations for field staff rather than making the Arthur Carhart Wilderness Training Center, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, and committee responsible for so many actions. Another suggestion was to develop mentoring programs to connect experienced wilderness manager with new employees and to increase consistency of policy interpretation and implementation across the agencies. Increasing our capacity to use traditional tools and practices was also expressed.
The committee was gratified to see the level of interest from a broad spectrum of our wilderness partners and other members of the public in the draft Plan. Even as the Plan is finalized, we have been implement-ing some of the action items, such as completing additional wilderness character baseline assessments, devel-oping a Science Plan, and integrating wilderness content into agency non-wilderness training courses.
With the support of the Wilderness Policy Council, wilderness managers and other field personnel, our dedicated partners, and our new partners, we can achieve the vision of fulfilling the promise of the 1964 Wilderness Act and fostering the commitment, expectations, responsibility, and skills within and outside the agencies needed to protect America’s National Wilderness Preservation System. NANCY ROEPER is the national wilderness coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the Wilderness Steering Committee; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NANCY ROEPER is the national wilderness coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the Wilderness Steering Committee; email: email@example.com.