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Forest Service Wilderness Recommendation Process

The Forest Service uses the following processes to consider Forest Service areas for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System. The details of the procedures and requirements are found in the Forest Service Land Management Planning Handbook, FSH 2309.12, id_1909.12-2006-1 at: References to specific Sections of the Land Management Planning Handbook are included in the summary below for reference.

Figure showing Forest Service wilderness designation process Click here to enlarge a diagram of the designation process

Process for Review and Approval of Wilderness Proposals

Proposals to recommend areas for wilderness designation by Congress can be initiated through either the forest planning process or through a special study (possibly resulting from a citizen initiative and congressional mandate). The inventory and evaluation criteria and level of analysis of wilderness proposals is the same regardless of the origin of the proposal.

Unless otherwise provided by law, all roadless, undeveloped areas that satisfy the definition of wilderness found in the Wilderness Act are evaluated and considered for recommendation as potential wilderness areas during forest plan development or revision. Consideration of wilderness suitability is inherent in land management planning. The general process for wilderness evaluation during the Forest Plan Revision Process is shown below.
  1. Identification of potential wilderness lands using inventory criteria
  2. Evaluation of capability, availability, and need
  3. Recommendation based on assessment and public input
  4. Include 'preliminary administrative recommendation' in revised Forest Plan
  5. Chief's review and recommendation to Congress

Inventory Criteria

The criteria listed below is used to inventory all national forest lands. (See Section 71.1 of the Forest Service Land Management Planning Handbook for more information.) Potential wilderness areas qualify for placement on the inventory if they meet one or more of the following criteria:
  • They contain 5,000 acres or more.
  • They contain less than 5,000 acres but:
    • Due to physical terrain, natural conditions can be preserved.
    • They are self-contained ecosystems, such as an island, that can be effectively managed as a separate unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
    • They are contiguous to existing wilderness, primitive areas, administration-endorsed wilderness, or potential wilderness in other Federal ownership, regardless of their size.
  • They do not contain improved roads maintained for travel by standard passenger-type vehicles, except a permitted in areas east of the 100th meridian.

The additional criteria below apply to areas east of the 100th meridian. (See Section 71.12 of the Forest Service Land Management Planning Handbook for more information.)
  • The land is regaining a natural, untrammeled appearance.
  • Improvements existing in the area are being affected by the forces of nature rather than humans and are disappearing or muted.
  • The area has existing or attainable National Forest System ownership patterns, both surface and subsurface, that could ensure perpetuation of identified Wilderness characteristics.
  • The location of the area is conducive to the perpetuation of wilderness values. Consider the relationship of the area to sources of noise, air, and water pollution, as well as unsightly conditions that would have an effect on the wilderness experience. The amount and pattern of Federal ownership is also an influencing factor.
  • The area contains no more than a half mile of improved road for each 1,000 acres, and the road is under Forest Service jurisdiction.
  • No more than 15 percent of the area is in non-native, planted vegetation.
  • Twenty percent or less of the area has been harvested within the past 10 years.
  • The area contains only a few dwellings on private lands and the location of these dwellings and their access needs insulate their effects on wilderness characteristics on National Forest System lands.

Evaluation of Inventoried Areas

The suitability of lands for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System is determined on the basis of capability, availability, and need. In addition to the inherent wilderness quality it possesses, an area must provide opportunities and experiences that are dependent upon or enhanced by a wilderness environment. The ability of the Forest Service to manage the area as wilderness is also considered. (For more details see Section 72 of the Forest Service Land Management Planning Handbook for more information.)

The following characteristics are considered, and if determined to be important, are described and referred to in a trade-off analysis.
  • Environment
    • The degree to which an area provides visitors with the opportunity to gain a wide range of experiential benefits including solitude.
    • The degree of natural integrity or the appearance of being free from disturbance.
  • Challenge
    • The degree to which an area offers opportunities to experience adventure, challenge, excitement, initiative, or self-reliance.
  • Outdoor Recreation Opportunities
    • The degree to which an area is capable of providing primitive and unconfined types of recreation.
  • Special Features
    • The capability of an area to provide other values such as ecological, geologic, scenic, or historical or cultural significance. Examples include the unique, outstanding and significant occurrences.
    • The presence of non-conforming structures necessary for management of critical wildlife or habitat.
  • Manageability
    • The ability of the Forest Service to manage an area as wilderness considering such factors as size, shape, and juxtaposition to external influences.
  • Additional Capability Criteria for Lands East of the 100th Meridian
    • Nonconforming uses are of a nature that can be effectively mitigated or terminated.
    • Nonconforming structures and improvements (except range improvements) are generally lacking.

All National Forest System lands determined to meet wilderness capability requirements are generally considered available for wilderness designation. However, the determination of availability is conditioned by the value of and need for the wilderness resource compared to the value of and need for other resources. In evaluating availability, the other resource demands and uses that the area under evaluation could satisfy are described. Constraints and encumbrances on lands may also govern the availability of lands for wilderness.

The need for an area to be designated as wilderness is determined through an analysis of the degree to which it contributes to the overall National Wilderness Preservation System. The need is demonstrated through the public involvement process, including public input to the evaluation report. Need is addressed on a regional basis and evaluates such factors as the geographic distribution of areas and representations of landforms and ecosystems.

Review and Approval of Wilderness Recommendations Resulting from Forest Planning

The process displayed below is used for review and approval of wilderness recommendations that result from the development or revision of a land management plan. (See Section 73 of the Forest Service Land Management Planning Handbook for more information.)
  • The evaluation report is prepared in conjunction with the revised forest plan.
  • The public is specifically requested to address the wilderness recommendations in its review of the land management plan and evaluation report. Public hearings are conducted if necessary.
  • The final land management plan is prepared following analysis of comments received. The wilderness recommendation proposal is identified as a "preliminary administrative recommendation" in the approval document.
  • The Responsible Official (often the Forest Supervisor) submits, through the Regional Forester, a wilderness recommendation proposal to the Forest Service Chief upon approving the land management plan or plan revision. The submitted package is a preliminary legislative proposal for the recommended wilderness designation.
  • The preliminary wilderness recommendation proposal is reviewed by the Chief.
  • If the Secretary of Agriculture decides to consider the proposal, the Secretary forwards the package to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review before approval by the administration. The review results in the administration's wilderness proposal that the President then submits to Congress for legislative action.

Review and Approval of Wilderness Recommendations Resulting from Special Studies

The process for submitting and approving proposals from special studies conducted outside of the forest planning process is described in Section 73.2.

Designated Wilderness

After the President's wilderness recommendation is formally sent to and considered by Congress, Congress may subsequently enact the legislation needed to include the area within the National Wilderness Preservation System as wilderness. The Forest Service assists the Department of Agriculture and Congress in this process as requested. Lands released by Congress from further wilderness consideration are managed in accordance with all laws, executive orders, regulations, and policies applicable to non-wilderness areas of the National Forest System.

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