SALT LAKE CITY — Throughout Utah's vast expanse of public land, 33 areas hold a special designation that entitle them to the highest level of protection land managers can give.
Since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act 50 years ago Wednesday, Congress has designated almost 110 million acres of wilderness throughout the country.
For especially pristine lands, the act calls for retaining their "primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements of human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions."
Designated wilderness areas pose challenges to those who use and manage the land, prohibiting the construction of roads and other structures, as well as using motorized vehicles. But the designation hardly puts a damper on the popularity of those lands, according to Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest spokeswoman Loyal Clark.
"Our greatest challenge to managing wilderness areas along the Wasatch Front is the volume of visitation to those areas," Clark said. "They're very accessible. People can leave their homes and be in a wilderness area anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours."
David Garbett, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says the Wilderness Act offers the assurance of preserved natural areas for generations to come.
"It's the best standard of land protection on federal public lands," Garbett said. "Areas that are designated as wilderness are guaranteed for both present and future generations as a place that will be the same today, tomorrow and 100 years in the future."
The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service collectively manage more than 1 million acres of designated wilderness in Utah.
Zion National Park alone accounts for 148,000 acres of designated wilderness — about 84 percent of the park.
In addition, the U.S. Forest Service manages about 4 million acres of "inventoried roadless areas" in Utah — areas that don't have the full wilderness designation but are "managed as wilderness areas in the event that Congress chooses to look at those for additional wilderness designation within the National Forest system," Clark said.
The BLM also manages about 3.2 million acres of "wilderness study areas" in the state.
But preserving the seemingly untouched character of wilderness areas makes some aspects of land management, like wildfire suppression, a challenge. Wildland firefighters are not permitted to drive engines into wilderness areas or use chain saws except to prevent impending danger to surrounding structures or resources, according to Clark. Firefighters must first rely on manual tools to contain wildfires.
Oil and mineral extraction, off-highway vehicle travel and other forms of development are also prohibited.
Recreationists are restricted on the size of groups, the use of campfires and designated facilities in wilderness areas. While walking cross-country through wilderness is not illegal, hikers are encouraged to stay on trails to preserve the condition of surrounding areas, Clark said.
Because of these restrictions, additional proposed wilderness is often met with opposition from various groups, Garbett said.
"I think that sometimes when we talk about wilderness here in this state, there's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction where some people would say, 'We're locking people out or we're locking up resources,'" he said. "They view it as something pushed on us by someone else. (But) we're just creating a legacy for future generations to enjoy things the way that we do today."
Fred Armstrong, division chief for natural and cultural resources for Zion National Park, says that despite the criticism of its restrictive character, wilderness offers something that humans are instinctively drawn to and will require in every generation.
"I think what most people find attractive in those areas is regaining something that we've lost in so many other places of the country," Armstrong said. "In this day and age, even though there are parks and open spaces in our urban areas, there are many places where Americans can no longer go and get away from human-induced noises, constructed buildings or roads.
"Wilderness is a place where people can experience nature on nature's terms," he said. "It's almost like allowing anybody to be their own personal Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. Going into an area where you don't know what to expect and you'll see both the good and the bad of natural processes going on."
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