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Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Recommendation Process

The Bureau of Land Management uses the following process to consider areas for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Wilderness Evaluation Process

With the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), Congress recognized the value of retaining the public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the permanent benefit of the nation, and directed how the agency is to manage those lands. Among other mandates, FLPMA directed the BLM to evaluate its lands for wilderness characteristics described in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Congress then has the option and authority to designate these areas, or other public lands, for wilderness preservation.

The BLM's wilderness evaluation process can be separated into two processes: The first took place prior to 1991; the second is a process occurring since 1991. The inventory that took place prior to 1991 included the steps of inventory, study, reporting, and non-impairing management. Areas identified prior to 1991 are known as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA). The inventory process occurring after 1991 includes the steps of inventory, study, and resource management planning.


The BLM evaluates all its lands for the presence or absence of the wilderness resource as required in Section 201(a) of FLPMA, which states: "The Secretary shall prepare and maintain on a continuing basis an inventory of all public lands and their resource and other values." Wilderness is a public land resource, as expressed in Section 2(a) of the Wilderness Act. Therefore, the resource inventory required by FLPMA includes the inventory of wilderness characteristics, consistent with the definition of wilderness found in Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act. The following three criteria must each be present in order for an area to possess wilderness characteristics: size, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for either solitude or a primitive and unconfined recreation:
  • Size - Roadless areas with over 5,000 acres of contiguous BLM lands, or smaller areas of sufficient size to make practicable the preservation of an unimpaired condition. Smaller areas may include: roadless islands, areas adjacent to other federal lands formally determined to have wilderness characteristics and protected by the administering agency, and other areas demonstrated to be of practical size. The word "roadless" refers to the absence of roads that have been improved and maintained by mechanical means to insure relatively regular and continuous use. A way maintained solely by the passage of vehicles does not constitute a road.
  • Naturalness - Areas which appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, and where any work of human beings is substantially unnoticeable.
  • Outstanding Opportunities for Solitude or a Primitive Unconfined Type of Recreation - Areas that have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. The word "or" means that the area has to possess one or the other, but does not have to possess opportunities for both elements.


The study phase examines all resource values of the areas containing wilderness characteristics and identifies the resources that will be enhanced or lost should the area's wilderness characteristics be protected or not. The study phase is completed through the BLM's land use planning process including a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document (usually an Environmental Impact Statement) which includes public participation. The Study phase evaluates resource information and use factors in an interdisciplinary process to decide the most appropriate public land uses, including:
  • Wilderness characteristics
  • Other resource values of the area
  • Current uses and management of the area
  • Potential uses of the area
  • The ability to protect and manage the area to preserve wilderness character should it be designated
  • Scarcity of all values, and long-term and short-term benefits to the public
  • The ability to coordinate with the planning programs of other governmental entities


The reporting phase recommends an area, or portions thereof, as suitable or non-suitable for wilderness designation based on the values identified from the study. The recommendation is the selected alternative in the NEPA document prepared during the study. This only applies to those areas identified as having wilderness characteristics (known as WSAs) prior to 1991 under the direction of Section 603 of FLPMA. The reporting phase includes a recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior to the President, and a recommendation of the President to the Congress. Congress has reserved for itself the authority to make final decisions on wilderness preservation, that is, designation as Wilderness and management under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

For areas identified as having wilderness characteristics after 1991, there is no reporting or recommendation for wilderness protection made to the Secretary of the Interior, the President, or Congress. In other words, these areas are not reported to the Congress as suitable or non-suitable for Congressional wilderness designation. However, Congress has the option and authority to designate these areas, or other public lands, for wilderness preservation.


For areas identified prior to 1991 as having wilderness characteristics (WSAs), the BLM manages them so as to not impair their suitability for preservation as wilderness under the direction of Section 603(c) of FLPMA. The decision to terminate their management as WSAs is a Congressional decision, and so the BLM is required to protect their wilderness characteristics pending Congress' decision. Management under non-impairment occurs for all WSAs regardless of the recommendation to Congress of an area as suitable or non-suitable for permanent protection of wilderness.

For areas identified after 1991 as having wilderness characteristics, protective management required under Section 603(c) of FLPMA does not apply. There is no pending Congressional wilderness decision for these areas, and so non-impairment management is not required. If the Record of Decision (ROD) in the BLM's Resource Management Plan (RMP) is to protect wilderness characteristics, the RMP further specifies the management actions that will be implemented to achieve protection. This protection is a resource allocation that will continue for the duration of the RMP and may be modified or changed through a new RMP.


There are a small number of WSAs that were established in two different processes than described under the inventory description above. The first are areas that were designated under the authority of the Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964 as "natural" or "primitive" which became WSAs immediately with the passage of FLPMA. The second are areas specifically designated by Congress through legislation.

Between 1991 and 1993 there were additional WSAs established (resulting from changes in land ownership) which were not reported to Congress. They were not reported because the required delivery date of the Secretary's report to the President was in 1991, and the report by the President to the Congress was in 1993. WSAs identified after 1991 were too late to be reported to the President. Subsequent case law further established that the authority to designate additional WSAs expired on October 21, 1993, the end of the reporting time frame of the President to Congress. Even though the requirement to maintain an inventory and conduct planning for lands having wilderness characteristics continues after 1993, those areas are not designated as WSAs.

Inventory policy between 1993 and 2012 relied on the original inventory practices and some short-term policies developed during that time. Although there were several attempts at developing national policy for maintaining a continuing inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics, it was not until 2012 that BLM finalized a manual establishing national policy (Manual 6310 - Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory of BLM Lands, March 15, 2012). While some technical differences exist in the inventories occurring between 1993 and 2012, the fundamental process has remained essentially unchanged throughout the history of BLM's efforts to inventory its lands containing wilderness characteristics.

Designation as Wilderness

Congress-and only Congress-has the authority to designate land as wilderness under the Wilderness Act.

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