By TED STROLL
Published: August 26, 2010
San Jose, Calif.
ONE day in early 1970, a cross-country skier got lost along the 46-mile Kekekabic Trail, which winds through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Unable to make his way out, he died of exposure.
In response, the Forest Service installed markers along the trail. But when, years later, it became time to replace them, the agency refused, claiming that the 1964 Wilderness Act
banned signage in the nation’s wilderness areas.
Despite the millions of people who have visited the country’s national parks, forests and wildernesses this summer, the Forest Service has become increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act. The result may be more pristine lands, but the agency’s zealous enforcement has also heightened safety risks and limited access to America’s wilderness areas.
Over the last 45 years Congress has designated as wilderness 40 percent of the land in our national parks and one-third of the land in our national forests — more than 170,000 square miles, an area nearly as large as California, Massachusetts and New Jersey combined — as wilderness. In March 2009, President Obama signed a law protecting 3,125 more square miles, the largest expansion in more than a generation.
Wilderness, according to the act, is space “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Within those areas, the act forbids cars, roads, structures and anything else that could impair the “outstanding opportunities for solitude.”
At the same time, though, Congress wanted people to use the land for recreation, so it allowed access to wilderness areas for hunting, hiking, canoeing and climbing.
Over the decades an obvious contradiction has emerged between preservation and access. As the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management — each of which claims jurisdiction over different wilderness areas — adopted stricter interpretations of the act, they forbade signs, baby strollers, certain climbing tools and carts that hunters use to carry game.
As a result, the agencies have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.
Part of the problem is that many of today’s common outdoor activities were unheard of in 1964, including trail cycling and wind-powered skiing. In forbidding them, the agencies invoke the Wilderness Act’s ban on “mechanical transport.” But the act’s legislative history makes clear that Congress never intended to stop people from using their own power to travel or shepherd their children, or from using light mechanical assistance that leaves no lasting trace.
The agencies have even taken on Capitol Hill: in 1980 Congress authorized bicycling in Montana’s Rattlesnake Wilderness, but the Forest Service refused to allow it.
The official resistance to wilderness signage, in particular, has become a safety issue. Every summer numerous backpackers, hikers and hunters get lost in the wilderness, with occasionally fatal results. In 2008, two experienced hikers along the Kekekabic Trail — the same Minnesota trail where the skier perished in 1970 — were lost for days and nearly ran out of food. The Forest Service listened to their complaints about the lack of signage but refused to act.
In response to the agencies’ inflexibility, groups of outdoor enthusiasts have lined up against any expansion of wilderness areas — an unfortunate result, because these people should be the natural constituents of a wilderness protection program.
The Wilderness Act is a monumental achievement in national resource conservation. But unless federal agencies begin to interpret it more reasonably, it is an achievement that even fewer numbers of people will want, or even be able, to enjoy.
Ted Stroll is an attorney.