Wilderness Facts

What is Wilderness?

The word “wilderness” means different things to different people based on their experiences, beliefs, and misconceptions.  The legal definition the US Congress uses to decide whether an area is Wilderness was published in the Wilderness Act of 1964.  “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape” is defined by the following characteristics:

  • “lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition” Section 2(a)
  • “an area where the earth and its community of life are  untrammeled by man” Section 2(c)
  •  “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation” Section 2(c)
  • “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable” Section 2(c)
  • “has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” Section 2(c)
  • has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition
  • “shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.” Section 4(b)

The Salmo Priest Wilderness Near Metaline Falls is the Only Wilderness Area in Eastern Washington

Less than 3% of the 1.1 million acre Colville National Forest  is designated Wilderness, representing less than 1% of all Wilderness in the state.  There are, however, 18 inventoried roadless areas in the Colville that meet criteria under the Wilderness Act for possible future designation.  Only 2.64% of the contiguous United States, an area about the size of South Dakota, is protected as Wilderness.

Wilderness Can Coexist With Our Region’s Timber Economy

The few remaining roadless areas under consideration for recommended wilderness on the CNF are mostly remote and relatively inaccessible because of the steep, rugged geography.  According to many northeast Washington timber industry leaders, the road infrastructure that would be needed to harvest these lands would not be cost effective and would result in a negative return on investment for the timber industry and tax payers.  However, a balanced plan for protecting roadless areas and ensuring a long-term supply of timber from previously managed lands will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity to our region over the next several decades.

Many people in northeast Washington believe a balanced plan for the Colville National Forest should include areas for timber harvest, restoration, and wilderness.  During the Forest Service’s collaborative “Summit” workshop, held from March 2006 to January 2007, eighty individuals from across the region representing diverse groups and interests endorsed a proposal for active management in “Responsible Management Areas”, where timber harvest would be focused, and areas where restoration activities would take place.  Summit participants also agreed to maintain “wilderness characteristics” of most of the inventoried roadless areas (IRAs). 

Cattle Grazing and Improvements for Livestock are Allowed in Recommended and Designated Wilderness. 

Both the Wilderness Act and Forest Service manuals state that grazing that occurred before an area was designated as Wilderness “shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.” The Forest Service policy follows the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, which specifically state that the number of animals allowed to graze should remain at generally the same level as prior to wilderness designation, and that “the maintenance of supporting facilities is permissible in wilderness.  Where practical alternatives do not exist, maintenance or other activities may be accomplished through the occasional use of motorized equipment.”

Wilderness Helps Maintain Secure Flows of Clean Water for Drinking Water, Irrigation, and Ranching.

Many of our region’s farms, ranches, and towns rely on the mountain backcountry as their source of water.  Maintaining the integrity of these lands through protections like Wilderness is a cost-effective way to secure our fresh water supplies for the future.

 Wildfire Can be Fought in Wilderness.

Forest Service policy states that administrators should “permit lightning caused fires to play, as nearly as possible, their natural ecological role within wilderness” but also to “reduce, to an acceptable level, the risks and consequences of wildfire within wilderness or escaping from wilderness.”  Forest Service personnel may also used prescribed fire to “reduce unnatural buildups of fuels” and reintroduce a more natural fire regime to the Wilderness area.  According to the Colville National Forest Plan, “all wildfires will receive an appropriate suppression response.  Apply aggressive suppression action to wildfires that threaten life, private property, public safety, improvements, or investments.”

Wilderness Ensures at Least Some of our Backcountry Will Stay the Way It’s Always Been.

As our region’s population increases and former farm and timber lands become more developed, our remaining backcountry lands become even more valuable as remnants of our once vast wilderness heritage. Wilderness is a place where we can connect with the past and where we can be reminded of how the American frontier helped to shape our values of freedom, self-reliance, and perseverance. These undeveloped, untamed lands provide an opportunity for us to experience the freedom, challenge, and solitude that helped shape our forefathers and our uniquely American culture.

Protective Designations Like Wilderness Areas Help Attract Tourists, Retirees, and New Businesses.

Wilderness ensures the scenic mountain backdrop of many small towns will be maintained as an asset to continue to attract tourists, retirees, and new businesses looking to relocate in areas with a high quality of life and nearby recreation opportunities.  An increase in the value of private property adjacent to Wilderness areas is also well documented, as is having an official landscape designation like “Wilderness Area” on the map as an added draw for the region.

Wilderness Areas Allow Recreational Access for Horseback Riding, Hiking, Hunting and Fishing, Skiing, Snowshoeing, Berry Picking, and Camping. 

More than 12 million people visit Wilderness each year on their own or with a guide. While motorized and mechanized vehicles like ATVs and bikes are not allowed in Wilderness, there are many other places on the CNF designated for those activities and the Coalition supports creating more opportunities for them.  Wheelchair use by the disabled is also allowed in Wilderness. 

Thousands of Miles of Wilderness Trails are Maintained Every Year

Trails in Wilderness are maintained using traditional hand tools like crosscut and bow saws and often rely on the horsemanship skills of packers to keep trails clear of downed trees and brush.  Because of declining federal budgets for trail maintenance on both front-country and Wilderness trails, volunteer groups have stepped up to help keep our trails open and to lobby to restore funding for our nation’s trails.

Wilderness Provides Habitat Security for Wildlife

Many animals, such as the elk, mule deer, bears, lynx and other wildlife rely on Wilderness and other undeveloped lands as escapement habitat where they can find refuge from increasing development and human pressures. Large natural burned areas and meadows and wetlands free of noxious weeds also provide important feeding areas for many types of wildlife.  Millions of birds also use Wilderness as nesting and wintering grounds and resting places when migrating.


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