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Back-Country Recreation Area Designation: A Positive Alternative to Wilderness

This presentation from The Wilderness Dilemma: Is There a Recreation Alternative?

Moderator: Gene W. Wood, Professor of Forest Wildlife Ecology, and Extension Trails Specialist, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
Panelists: Clark Collins, Executive Director, BlueRibbon Coalition, Pocatello, Idaho Jim Hasenauer, Board Member, International Mountain Biking Association, Woodland Hills, California Rosalind McClellan, Director, Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative, Nederlands, Colorado

By Clark Collins

Many U.S. citizens do not trust the federal land managers to manage our natural resources responsibly. Wilderness advocates have taken advantage of this situation to promote Wilderness designation as a means to protect these areas. Wilderness designation as originally conceived by the Wilderness advocates involved in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, as appropriate for about ten million acres of administratively designated Wilderness and Primitive Areas. Present day Wilderness advocates have since "corrupted" the concept to a system of over one hundred million acres, and they say we need much more.

An alternative land designation should be considered to help resolve the Wilderness debate on our federal lands, which are located primarily in the West and Alaska. Currently there is also an effort by Congress and the Clinton Administration to purchase large green belts in the Eastern United States where there is little federal land. Without an alternative, these green belts will most likely be set aside for possible Wilderness designation.

Off highway motorcycles, snowmobiles, 4X4s, mountain bikes, all terrain vehicles (ATV), and motorized watercraft are not allowed in designated Wilderness. Motorized uses that have been grandfathered into some Wilderness areas, such as use of aircraft and powerboats, are subjected to harassment. Horseback riders, hunters and other non-motorized recreationists are also increasingly under attack from Wilderness purists who push more restrictive regulations in existing Wilderness areas and those areas proposed for that designation.

The U.S. Congress should consider legislation establishing a federal designation that is less restrictive to recreational use than does the Wilderness designation. We propose that it should be called "Back-Country Recreation Area." This designation should be designed to protect, and if possible enhance, the back-country recreation opportunities on these lands while still allowing responsible utilization of these areas by the natural resource industries.

This designation should be considered for those areas currently identified by the federal land management agencies as "roadless" and thus currently under consideration for Wilderness designation. Areas considered may or may not be recommended for Wilderness designation or classed as Wilderness Study Areas. Also, the Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have administratively developed non-Congressionally designated Wilderness-like reserves or buffer zones. The Forest Service's buffers are called natural and near-natural areas. The BLM's reserves are named primitive and semi-primitive. These non-Congressionally approved land classifications could also be considered for Back-Country Recreation Area (BCRA) designation.

All "roadless" federal lands, not currently designated as Wilderness, should be reviewed for their importance to back-country recreationists and considered for designation as BCRAs within 20 years of the passage of this Act.

Many so-called "roadless" areas have been under consideration for Wilderness designation for over 30 years. Much of the opposition to Wilderness designation in many of these areas has been from recreationists whose preferred form of recreation is not allowed in designated Wilderness. Recreational resources need not be sacrificed for responsible resource use. We need a designation that encourages cooperation between diverse recreation interests, and between recreationists and the resource industries. The BCRA can be that designation.


Resource industry activities had priority over protection of recreation resources.

Protection of areas "for" recreation and tourism is misused by Wilderness advocates as a tool to stop resource-industry use.

Resource industry activities would be allowed, but recreation resources would need to be protected in the process.

Recreational trails and access roads were often obliterated, or made unavailable for recreation use, by resource industry activities. "Loop" routes were sometimes interrupted making entire trails systems unusable. Some recreationists have blamed the resource industries for these disruptions.

Wilderness advocates have taken advantage of recreation disruptions to justify their resource industry attacks as "in defense of recreation and tourism." At the same time they oppose the construction of new recreational trails or access roads, especially in areas they want designated as Wilderness.

Recreational trails and access roads would be protected during, restored after, or rerouted prior to, any resource industry activities. Special attention would be paid to avoid disruption of "loop" routes. BCRA designation would be considered, instead of Wilderness, for important recreation areas.

Primitive roads, that are important to recreationists, were sometimes closed and obliterated as mitigation for new road construction or upgrading of existing routes to facilitate resource industry use. Once again, some recreationists have blamed the resource industries for these disruptions.

Wilderness advocates oppose the maintenance of and/or upgrading of existing roads on our federal lands for any reason. This provides for even currently "roaded" areas to someday be considered for Wilderness. Wilderness is their ultimate goal, and how they keep score of their successes.

Prior to being closed or obliterated for any reason, primitive roads would be evaluated for their recreational importance. On important recreation routes, re-routing or re-construction instead of total closure would address environmental protection concerns.

Resource industry activities were generally not explained to recreationists using nearby areas.

Wilderness advocates have used the recreation public's ignorance of "where things come from" to demonize our resource industries.

Interpretive signing could be used to explain to recreationists how our resources are being used wisely and for what.

USFS or BLM personnel planning resource industry activities gave little to no consideration to impacts on recreation resources. However, many recreationists blamed the resource industries, instead of the agencies, for this problem.

Recreationists, who have blamed the resource industries for this poor planning, are easy prey for Wilderness advocates who say there is no room on our federal land for any resource industry use. Wilderness advocates have just about "shut down" our public lands.

Recreationists, resource industry representatives, and land managers would work together to ensure minimum disruption of recreational opportunities as a result of resource industry activities. We would show the public that "multiple use" can work.


Transportation routes were evaluated primarily for their ability to facilitate the movement of goods or people from point A to point B.

Transportation routes are evaluated primarily for their potential for environmental impact. They are considered an intrusion on nature.

Transportation routes would be considered an important recreation resource in their own right, and protected.

Access roads on USFS and BLM lands were paid for by the agencies from receipts or royalties from resource industry activities. Recreational users have essentially had a "free ride."

The USFS and BLM have caved in to pressure from the Wilderness advocates to block resource industry use. Now they are struggling with a lack of funding to maintain their transportation system.

Most new roads would be constructed by "timber" or other resource industry dollars, as part of their contracts. Maintenance of general access routes would be funded from "recreation" budgets and programs.

USFS and BLM recreation programs were largely funded through agency receipts from resource industry use. Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and 25% of revenue from resource utilization fees and royalties were paid to local counties for education and transportation.

Federal agencies are struggling with recreation fee projects that are opposed by Wilderness advocates who think "their" recreation should be free. Wilderness advocates want the USFS and BLM funded entirely from the general fund. County receipts from federal lands have been drastically reduced.

The Recreational Trails Program (a federal trail-funding program) and state recreation programs could continue to be used to supplement USFS and BLM recreation funding. Receipts from resource industry activities would continue to be used for PILT and 25% payments to counties.

OHV recreation groups support state registration and fuel tax-supported trail funding programs. "Some" recreationists work for passage of a federal fuel tax funded trails program called the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). Wilderness advocates unsuccessfully oppose these legislative initiatives, causing some legislators and recreation managers to question their motives.

Wilderness advocates continue to oppose these "user pay-user benefit" programs because they may make areas ineligible for future Wilderness designation. More federal and state recreation managers, who would normally support Wilderness, now realize the Wilderness purists are actually opposed to recreation. A broad array of recreationists realizes that Wilderness is not good for recreation, especially mountain bikers who are not allowed in Wilderness.

Wilderness advocates continue to oppose any designation short of Wilderness. This will further erode their legitimacy as recreation representatives. Even eastern urban bicycle commuters will identify with their mountain biker friends, and may oppose Wilderness designations. The Wilderness designation movement will lose much of its "recreation" interest support. BCRA designation will show that recreation and resource industries can co-exist.

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