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National Park Service Wilderness Recommendation Process

The National Park Service uses the following process to consider National Park Service areas for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System (adapted from Section 6.2 of the National Park Service - 2006 Management Policies).
This figure presents a simplified schematic of the wilderness recommendation process followed by the National Park Service.

Assessment of Wilderness Eligibility or Ineligibility

All lands administered by the National Park Service, including new units or additions to existing units since 1964, are evaluated for their eligibility1 for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Additionally, lands that were originally assessed as ineligible for wilderness because of nonconforming or incompatible uses are reevaluated if the nonconforming uses have been terminated or removed. A wilderness eligibility assessment consists of a brief memorandum from the regional director to the National Park Service Director that makes a managerial determination as to the eligibility of the park lands for wilderness designation.

The assessment may include information important for other park planning purposes, and other park planning efforts may likewise produce information important to wilderness. The assessment is therefore completed in a timely manner and thoughtfully coordinated with other planning activities. The assessment may be combined with the wilderness study described below if the combined document can be completed in a timely manner.

Primary Eligibility Criteria

National Park Service lands are considered eligible for wilderness if they are at least 5,000 acres or of sufficient size to make practicable their preservation and use in an unimpaired condition, and if they possess the following characteristics (as identified in the Wilderness Act):
  • The earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans, where humans are visitors and do not remain.
  • The area is undeveloped and retains its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation.
  • The area generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of humans' work substantially unnoticeable.
  • The area is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.
  • The area offers outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

Additional Considerations in Determining Eligibility

In addition to the primary eligibility criteria, the following considerations are taken into account in determining eligibility:
  • A wilderness area may contain significant ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value, although it does not need these things to be considered eligible for wilderness designation.
  • Lands that have been logged, farmed, grazed, mined, or otherwise used in ways not involving extensive development or alteration of the landscape may also be considered eligible for wilderness designation if, at the time of assessment, the effects of these activities are substantially unnoticeable or their wilderness character could be maintained or restored through appropriate management actions.
  • An area is not excluded from a determination of wilderness eligibility solely because established or proposed management practices require the use of tools, equipment, or structures if those practices are necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area as wilderness.
  • In the process of determining wilderness eligibility, lands are not excluded solely because of existing rights or privileges (e.g., mineral exploration and development, commercial operations, agricultural development, grazing, or stock driveways). If the National Park Service determines that these lands possess wilderness character, they may be included in the eligibility determination so that they can be considered for designation as wilderness or potential wilderness.
  • Lands containing aboveground or buried utility lines are normally not considered as eligible for wilderness designation, but they can be considered as eligible for "potential" wilderness designation if there is a long-term intent to remove the lines. No new utility lines may be installed in wilderness, and existing utility lines may not be extended or enlarged except as may be allowed according to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (Section 1106 16 USC 1133(c)).
  • Historic features that are primary attractions for park visitors are generally not recommended as eligible for wilderness designation. However, an area that attracts visitors primarily for the enjoyment of solitude and unconfined recreation in a primitive setting may also contain cultural resource features and still be included in wilderness. Historic trails may serve and be maintained as part of the wilderness trail system, as identified and coordinated within an approved wilderness management plan and the park's cultural resource plan. The presence of historic structures does not make an area ineligible for wilderness. A recommendation may be made to include a historic structure in wilderness if (1) the structure would be only a minor feature of the total wilderness proposal; and (2) the structure will remain in its historic state, without development.
  • Dams within or affecting the area being studied do not make a waterway ineligible for wilderness designation. The nature and extent of impacts and the extent to which the impacts can be mitigated would need to be addressed in subsequent wilderness studies.
  • The established use of motorboats, snowmobiles, or aircraft does not make an area ineligible for wilderness. The nature and extent of any impacts on the environment and on eligibility, and the extent to which the impacts can be mitigated would need to be addressed in subsequent wilderness studies, along with the possible need to discontinue the use.
  • Overflights do not make an area ineligible for wilderness designation. The nature and extent of any overflight impacts and the extent to which the impacts can be mitigated would need to be addressed in subsequent wilderness studies.

The Assessment Process

The National Park Service involves the public in the wilderness eligibility assessment process through notification of its intentions to conduct the assessment and publication of the National Park Service Director's determination, either as "eligible" or as "ineligible" for further wilderness study. Notification includes the issuance of news releases to local and regional news media and the publication of a final eligibility determination in the Federal Register. The final determination of an area's eligibility, or ineligibility, for further study is approved by the National Park Service Director before publication of the final eligibility determination in the Federal Register. For areas determined to be ineligible for wilderness designation, the wilderness preservation provisions in the National Park Service Management Policies are not applicable. However, ineligible lands are managed in accordance with the National Park Service Organic Act and all other laws, executive orders, regulations, and policies applicable to units of the National Park System.

Wilderness Studies

Lands and waters found to possess the characteristics and values of wilderness, as defined in the Wilderness Act and determined eligible pursuant to the wilderness eligibility assessment, are formally studied to develop the recommendation to Congress for wilderness designation. The National Park Service continues to undertake wilderness studies of all lands that have been determined to be eligible as a result of the wilderness eligibility assessment. Also, studies are made of lands for which subsequent legislation directs that wilderness studies be completed. Wilderness studies are supported by appropriate documentation of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The Council on Environmental Quality requires environmental impact statements for wilderness studies that will result in recommendations for designations (i.e., proposals for legislation to designate as wilderness).

Potential Wilderness

A wilderness study may identify lands that are surrounded by or adjacent to lands proposed for wilderness designation but that do not themselves qualify for immediate designation due to temporary nonconforming or incompatible conditions. The wilderness recommendation forwarded to the Congress by the President may identify these lands as "potential" wilderness for future designation as wilderness when the nonconforming use has been removed or eliminated. If so authorized by Congress, these potential wilderness areas will become designated wilderness upon the Department of Interior Secretary's determination, published in the Federal Register, that they have finally met the qualifications for designation by the cessation or termination of the nonconforming use.

Proposed Wilderness

The findings and conclusions of a formal wilderness study are reviewed by the National Park Service Director, who then determines which lands are forwarded to the Department of the Interior (Assistant Secretary's Office) as "proposed" wilderness. The National Park Service Director's proposed wilderness identifies park lands that he/she believes the Secretary of Interior should recommend for immediate wilderness designation, as well as any other lands identified as "not proposed" or as "potential" wilderness.

Recommended Wilderness

The Secretary of Interior is responsible for recommending to the President those lands under his/her jurisdiction that are suitable or nonsuitable for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Secretary performs this function through the Assistant Secretary's Office by reviewing National Park Service proposed wilderness and either approving or revising the proposal. The final result is forwarded by the Secretary for the President's consideration. The President is then responsible for transmitting the recommendations with respect to wilderness designation to both houses of Congress (House of Representatives, Senate). These recommendations are accompanied by maps and boundary descriptions. The National Park Service tracks the status of the wilderness designation process in Congress.

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 "designated" and/or "potential" wilderness. The National Park Service assists the Department of Interior and Congress in this process as requested. Lands released by Congress from further wilderness consideration are managed in accordance with the National Park Service Organic Act and all other laws, executive orders, regulations, and policies applicable to non-wilderness areas of the National Park System.

1 Management Policies 2001 used the term "suitability" to refer to the Park Service's initial screening assessment as to whether lands meet the minimum criteria for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Wilderness Act, however, uses "suitability" to refer to the Secretary's determinations in forwarding recommendations to the President. For purposes of clarity, the National Park Service initial screening assessment has been renamed an "eligibility" assessment. The change from "suitability" to "eligibility" in no way lessens the protected status of these lands.



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