Wilderness Study Areas Under Attack

Bell Mountain Canyon in Idaho's Lemhi Range. Targhee National Forest recommends its section of the southern Lemhis as wilderness, but Salmon-Challis N.F. disagrees regarding its portion. Felt like wilderness to me.

I don’t like to talk politics online, but a blog such as mine, devoted to wilderness photography, really cannot ignore HR 1581, a.k.a the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011. This bill essentially seeks to end the designation of Wilderness Study Area in this country. For anyone not familiar with these designations, a Wilderness Study Area is a piece of land, generally roadless or containing only very marginal roadways, which possesses some or all of the characteristics desirable for designation as legal wilderness: undeveloped, lonely, and “contain[ing] ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. WSAs are mostly on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land (with the lion’s share on BLM), and are de facto wilderness that congress has not gotten around to recognizing.

Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area in Utah

Now, as both critics and fans of WSAs often put it, “They been studyin’ a long time.” I can certainly sympathize with the impulse to get this issue resovled and off the table for a lot of these pieces of land. And I’m also willing to recognize that there are WSAs that don’t really make the cut: not big enough, not wild enough, relatively featureless and insufficiently distinguished from the surrounding country. But an awful lot of WSAs definitely qualify, and many encompass spectacular country that in a region less graced with natural beauty than the American West would very likely be designated as national parks.

Fortunately, this bill only seems to apply (as I read it) to lands which the respective agencies have not recommended for wilderness designation: a small mercy, I suppose. But neither Forest Service nor BLM have shown much discernment in their recommendations over the years, and some eminently qualified areas (good examples include such as Idaho’s White Cloud and Lemhi Mountains, or much of southern Utah’s canyon country) remain “not recommended,” and hence apt to be summarily released under the proposed bill.

Notch Peak WSA, Utah west desert

Does the status of these pieces of land need to be resolved? Absolutely. But a summary wiping of the slate with a clear anti-wilderness bias such as HR 1581 proposes is not the way to go about it. There are lots of under-appreciated gems out there, and they deserve fair consideration before being arbitrarily opened to road building and development.

Thankfully, I don’t expect this to make much progress as a stand-alone bill, at least in the current congress. But the proposal should remind us all that the Wilderness Act is not to be taken for granted: it’s less than 50 years old, it’s deeply tied up with politics, and it has less (and certainly less bipartisan) support than it;s enjoyed in the past. In my opinion, America’s wilderness preservation system is a wonder even as it stands, and if some of its most notable omissions were remedied (looking at you, Utah and Idaho) it would be truly a crown jewel of the world. But progress is far from guaranteed; even holding the current line is far from guaranteed.

Looking towards Cabezon Wilderness Study Area, New Mexico

Looking through my archives for images from Wilderness Study Areas definitely brings home the realization that I haven’t spent enough time in such places. There are a fair number on my bucket list, but not many where I’ve made successful images to date. I definitely want to remedy that situation, and I’d highly recommend to readers that you get out and explore a WSA near you; if my (admittedly limited) experience is any guide, you’ll be glad you went! Unfortunately, it can be a bitch to find info on WSAs. You might try this page for WSAs on Forest Service land. The BLM offers a generalized map and a detailed table (PDF); some state subpages on the BLM site have better info.

Photographers: please feel free to link any good shots you may have from WSAs in the comments! (If you’ve shot in Utah canyons, you may have a bunch without even realizing it.)

Looking into the Mount Borah WSA, which contains the highest peaks in Idaho. Please view full size!

We need wilderness, because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go to go crazy in peace. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable and starving in. Even the maddest murderer of the sweetest wife should get a chance for a run to the sanctuary of the hills, if only for the sport of it, for the terror, freedom and delirium.

-Edward Abbey

A spring storm blows out of the Burnt Creek WSA, eastern Idaho


6 thoughts on “Wilderness Study Areas Under Attack

  1. This is a really moving post, with fantastic images to accompany it. In terms of the intellectual or spiritual, I can’t add much–you’ve said it all better than I could. I can however, add some images. One thing that strikes me is how much human history is also contained in WSAs–particularly in the Southwest:

    Fish Creek Canyon WSA, Utah:

    Crack Canyon WSA, Utah:

    • Great images, Greg, thanks! I used to spend a lot of time in the Cedar Mesa canyons, but haven’t been there in years. Really should go back now that my photography is more competent. And those Crack Canyon pictos are super cool, and completely new to me.

      Interesting that you chose WSA images here that all depict human works. Several of the ones I included in the post are arguably similar, if less obvious: the Lemhis, Desolation Canyon and the Cabezon area were all much more populated 70-120 years ago than they are today, and it’s not hard to think of many other wildernesses, designated and non-, of which that’s true. Likewise, the canyons and mesas that were the center of Anasazi civilization 1,000 years ago are now the places we go for a sense of wildness, insignificance and the passing of time. It’s good to take the long view sometimes when contemplating wild landscapes, and to remember that many human impacts are transitory. But I still want these places to remain as they are for at least my lifetime!

  2. Greetings,

    Just curious where you were standing when you composed your photo of Notch Peak, I pass by there on the lonely Hwy 6, have done a little gold prospecting in the Amasa Valley, and have been trying to find a vantage point to compose a view that will show off the massive height of the peak and I think you have nailed it! By the way, if you are ever in the area again, I would definitely recommend the view off of Baldy Peak. The view looks something like the two following links:


    Although I’m sure a competent photographer could render something even more spectacular with the right equipment at the right time of day. I have not taken the chance to revisit Baldy Peak lately or take a decent photo with good equipment.

    • Thanks Rex! There’s a little road that branches off from the big Tule Valley dirt road that runs past a little gravel pit straight towards the canyon at the base of the peak. There were some old diggings up there, and some rockclimbers were camped out. I shot from a prominent rock knob in the mouth of the canyon.

      Thanks for the Baldy recommendation! I could easily spend a week exploring and shooting that area, and I’d love to go back in a season where I could get up to the range crest.

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