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Alternatives to Wilderness Act could broaden land protection

By Gary Lowell Sprung, Editor, IMBA Trail News, Intl. Mountain Bicycling Association


In 1984 millions of acres of federally designated Wilderness were closed to bicycling when the USDA Forest Service reinterpreted the meaning of the Act's clause, "no mechanical transport." Since then, bicyclists have tried to find policy solutions that will both protect land and provide opportunities for mountain biking.

In 1998, when this article was first published, the idea of alternatives to Wilderness was just beginning to roll. President Clinton had recently declared the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Since then, the Alternatives movement has taken off. Clinton's Roadless Initiative may establish a new category of public lands. Other people have offered other Alternatives proposals.

The Congress in 1999 designated a new National Conservation Area in Colorado, the Gunnison Gorge NCA, and two more NCAs in Colorado appear likely in the near future. All of the new and old NCAs follow the pattern: Congress draws a boundary and names a special place, but gives very little direction regarding management. Without clear management prescriptions that protect lands, the preservation or conservation value of NCAs is questionable.

The idea of Alternatives to Wilderness is relevant to all who desire additional lands protected from development. A middle option between Wilderness and regular multiple-use management can increase public support for protections, allow more diverse recreation, and protect lands that do not meet Wilderness criteria.

The proposal below, although written with NCAs and NRAs in mind, might better apply to Roadless Areas, or some other new name. This proposal is not official IMBA policy. It is presented here to stimulate thought and feedback. --G.S.

The public land protection method traditionally employed in the United States, Wilderness designation, effectively preserves land, but it prohibits bicycling. This is causing bicyclists to question further Wilderness designations, resulting in a decrease in support for an important political cause, land protection, which needs all the friends it can get.

Many more places warrant Wilderness protection. However, other options exist. If preservation advocates wish to protect more places, they can often gain support by allowing more diverse recreation on the land. Alternative tools could protect larger landscapes, including lands that would not qualify for Wilderness designation.

Congress has already designated many landscapes as NCAs and NRAs, but those legislative acts provided little direction to managing agencies. New roads are often allowed within these land units, making some NCAs and NRAs little more than lines on paper.

Wilderness, in contrast, is well defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act is called an "organic act," which is a legislative term for a law which establishes comprehensive land management principles. All Wilderness areas prohibit mining, logging, roads, buildings, dams and most other development.

Similar organic acts have been passed to define the management of national forests, national parks, wild rivers, and BLM lands. Organic act legislation for NCAs and NRAs would fix the glaring inadequacy of these alternative designations.

The following descriptions propose management policies for NCAs and NRAs.


A proposal for an organic act

"The purpose of National Conservation Area designation is to protect natural landscapes from inappropriate development, promote ecological restoration, and allow recreation opportunities which are compatible with ecological integrity."

Many natural areas on our public lands are not roadless and thus do not qualify for Wilderness designation yet deserve protection to maintain critical

ecological values. Under this proposal, National Conservation Areas need not be roadless. Rather, they should be "substantially natural." Therefore, they may encompass larger landscapes than would be eligible for Wilderness protection.

NCA designations should direct land managers to restore natural ecosystems. In contrast, in Wilderness areas the principle is to not take action. So an NCA inherently implies a greater degree of management. The NCA proposal would also allow managers to promote stewardship by livestock operators, whereas Wilderness designation is legally required to not affect on livestock management.

NCAs, if properly legislated, can protect the land while calling for different management emphasis. They will diversify our legal system for protecting landscapes, giving us better tools for different circumstances. By allowing more diverse recreation, they will significantly expand the constituency for protecting lands from excessive development.

NCA management principles

NCA designation will:



A proposal for an organic act

"The purpose of the National Recreation Area designation is to provide protected landscapes where recreation opportunities are abundant and well managed." Recreation has become the most important use of the public lands. The

USDA Forest Service estimates that recreation now contributes about 75% of the economic benefits generated on the national forests. Outdoor recreation on our public lands can be a very positive influence on society. It improves and builds human health, connects people to Nature, and inspires spirituality.

The quality of outdoor recreation is diminished by most development. Few people seek logging clearcuts as a place to hike, ride or drive. Recreationists prefer more natural settings.

Recreation also can have severe impacts on land, wildlife and water, especially when the use is poorly managed. NRA designation would mandate and empower better management to avoid such impacts. We need to give some areas greater protection than is afforded by the normal principles of multiple-use, sustained yield, and something-for-everyone which apply to the nation's national forests and BLM lands.

NRAs, if properly legislated, can protect broad landscapes while allowing recreational uses which wouldn't be appropriate in Wilderness. They can expand the tools available for resource and land conservation, and also diversify the constituencies of people supporting better land protection and management.

NRA management principles

NRA designation will:

For more information contact Gary Sprung, Communications Director, International Mtn Bicycling Association, PO Box 1212, Crested Butte, CO 81224 (970) 349-5617; e-mail:


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