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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2004
Table of Contents
  FEATURES: Wild America
Our Great Estate
Land Lingo
The Assault on Wild America
Beneath Wyoming Stars
Stuck on the Desert
Deep in the Georgia Woods
In the Rockies' Wild Heart
Experts Agree!
Interview: Yvon Chouinard
Ways & Means
Let's Talk
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Sierra Club Bulletin
Grassroots Update
Mixed Media
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Our Great Estate | Land Lingo | The Assault on Wild America | Red Desert: BLM Public Land | Cabeza Prieta | Chattahoochee National Forest | Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

Land Lingo

A quick guide to wildlands and how they’re protected.

Public Lands | Private Lands | Wilderness Areas | National Parks | National Forests | Bureau of Land Management Funds | National Wildlife Refuges

Public Lands

Looking for a place to hike, camp, climb, or paddle? This land is your land–well, about a third of it is, at least. More than 655 million acres across the United States are managed by a handful of federal agencies. All this land is supposed to be at least somewhat protected for its natural heritage and recreational opportunities or for its historical and cultural values. But most places in this national system, no matter how exalted their names may sound, are vulnerable to logging, mining, grazing, and drilling, with wildness and human-powered recreation taking a backseat to commercial exploitation. You’d think, for example, that a "national wildlife refuge" would be safe, but the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has been at the center of one of the largest oil-drilling fights ever.

Here’s an introduction to your public lands, working down from theoretically well-protected national parks and wilderness areas to the lands the Bush administration seems hell-bent on turning into off-road-vehicle playgrounds and industrial wastelands.

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Wilderness Areas

Scope: Over 106 million acres in more than 660 sites across the nation

In a nutshell: The holy grail of nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, wilderness designation is the strongest protection public land can have. In some of the most poetic language ever penned by U.S. legislators, in 1964 Congress defined a wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." No roads or permanent structures are allowed in wilderness areas, and logging, mining, and "mechanized transport" such as motor vehicles and even bicycles are prohibited. Hunting, fishing, and livestock grazing are allowed, except in most wilderness areas within national parks. Wildernesses are established by Congress on any public land administered by a federal agency (over 40 percent are within national parks). They account for just 4.7 percent of all land in the United States.

Threats: A pocket of private land within a wilderness area (known as an "inholding") can be developed unless a land swap or purchase is arranged. And "wilderness study areas"–wildlands with wilderness potential that have been identified by federal agency employees but not yet designated by Congress–are often compromised by threats like off-road-vehicle use and mining, which damage their chance to join the ranks of pristine, protected wilderness. In September 2003, the Bush administration announced it would no longer give special protection to wilderness-quality land and capped the total acreage devoted to wilderness on territory managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

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National Parks

Scope: More than 80 million acres overseen by the National Park Service, including 56 parks nationwide

In a nutshell: The National Park Service’s mandate is to preserve and protect land for future generations to enjoy, and its parks include the most spectacular scenery America has to offer–Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon among them. Nature appreciation and protection is the focus here; mining, logging, hunting, and even collecting are not allowed. Of the 388 units that the National Park Service oversees, only one in seven are national parks. Most national monuments are administered by the Park Service, as well as 19 national recreation areas and 14 national seashores and lakeshores.

Threats: Some national parks are too popular for their own good: Great Smoky Mountains, for example, hosts 9 million visitors every year. Park managers nationwide are under pressure to provide amenities like roads, banks, and pizza parlors at the expense of natural heritage, and funding has not kept up with basic needs, which leaves habitat, historic structures, and even visitors at risk. And parks from Montana to Florida have become islands of nature surrounded by commercial development and forestland for sale or lease. Despite a pledge to beef up park budgets, under George Bush funds have stagnated; at the same time, the administration has pushed a plan to "privatize" many park jobs held by long-term federal employees.

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National Forests

Scope: Over 190 million acres in 155 forests and 20 grasslands nationwide

In a nutshell: Administered by the Forest Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, national forests are, in theory, managed for protection and conservation. But their "multiple use" mandate ("the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run," according to Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first chief forester) means that recreation, wildlife, and habitat protection compete with logging and grazing. To those who have fought years of taxpayer-subsidized timber projects, the agency’s calling translates to "multiple abuse"; 440,000 miles of roads have been cut through national forests, primarily to facilitate logging. These cherished Forest Service lands also offer more than 4,300 campgrounds, 133,000 miles of trails, and 95 wild and scenic rivers, while hunting, fishing, and national-forest recreation contribute $111 billion annually to the gross domestic product and account for 2.9 million jobs a year.

Threats: The Bush administration has chipped relentlessly at national-forest protection. (Go to to read about its handiwork since late 2002 alone.) In December 2003, George Bush signed into law the so-called Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which will expand logging under the guise of protecting forests from wildfires. And the administration has abandoned the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which banned logging and roadbuilding in most roadless national forest areas in 2001. After failing to defend the rule in court, the White House is preparing to unveil a replacement policy this year that could leave the forests permanently at risk.

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Bureau of Land Management Lands

Scope: More than 260 million acres, primarily in 12 western states

In a nutshell: Sometimes sarcastically referred to as the"Bureau of Livestock and Mining," the BLM was formed in 1946 to manage lands that settlers had not claimed and that had not been set aside as national parks or forests. In 1976, the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act directed the agency to consider recreation and preservation as important as resource extraction. (The law also directed the BLM to inventory roadless areas and assess their potential for wilderness designation.) The BLM is responsible for more territory than any other federal agency, including 38 wild and scenic rivers, as well as much of the Southwest’s stunning redrock country and Wyoming’s Red Desert.

Threats: Under the Clinton administration, the BLM became guardian of 15 new national monuments and more than a dozen national conservation areas–places with "high ecological importance" such as California’s Lost Coast. But the agency’s conservation efforts are plagued by limited staffing and inadequate funds–and hamstrung by the Bush administration’s ban on new wilderness areas on BLM land.

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National Wildlife Refuges

Scope: 542 refuges and 26,000 "waterfowl production areas" covering more than 95 million acres

In a nutshell: Refuges are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for animals, rather than recreation or, in theory, exploitation. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt established the first national refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, as a "preserve and breeding ground for native birds." Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s largest network of lands set aside primarily for protecting wildlife. There is at least one wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of every major U.S. city. More than 35.5 million visits fueled more than $809 million in retail purchases in 2002. Hunting and trapping are allowed on nearly two-thirds of the refuges.

Threats: While Bush administration proposals to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have received the most attention, 1,806 active oil and gas wells are spread across 36 refuges. A recent report by Congress’s auditing arm, the General Accounting Office, recommended tighter oversight of oil and gas activities in the refuges, yet the Bush administration’s energy proposals would accelerate resource extraction on all public lands.

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Private Lands

Property rights may be sacrosanct in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that landowners are free to harm wildlife or impair the land, water, and air that people and wildlife depend on. Here are two key rules that protect U.S. land no matter who holds the deed.

The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals that are listed by the federal government as endangered or threatened. The first designation applies to a species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or most of its range, while the second applies to one that is likely to become endangered in the near future. When a species is listed, the habitat it needs to survive must be protected as well. The Endangered Species Act now covers more than 1,200 plants and animals, while 256 additional species are candidates for protection. Under the Bush administration, the number of new species listed annually has dropped drastically (and those that made the list did so because courts ordered it). In response to industry lawsuits, the administration has also rescinded habitat protections for 29 species.

The Clean Water Act has a simple mandate: make all U.S. waters safe for fishing and swimming. But 30 years after the law was passed, not even two-thirds of them meet the goal. Part of this is attributable to the daunting task of controlling pollution from industries and agriculture and from diffuse sources such as airborne toxics or urban runoff. But much blame can be laid at the feet of officials unwilling to enforce the law. For example, in 2003 the Bush administration proposed rule changes that could have removed Clean Water Act protections from millions of acres of isolated wetlands and streams. In December, it announced it was dropping the plan, but at press time "staff guidance" issued by the EPA that weakens wetlands protections remained in place. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates mountaintop-removal mining (a technique that exposes coal seams by decapitating mountains and dumping the waste in valleys) but does not require extensive analysis of its environmental impacts, even though such mining has destroyed more than 700 miles of streams. Yet the Bush administration has proposed "streamlining" the review of mining permits, and has revised Clean Water Act rules to legalize the dumping of mountaintop debris.

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