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Wilderness frequently asked questions

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Your questions about Wilderness, answered.

Northeastern Washington wilderness

Wilderness is the highest form of protection for our federal lands
Wilderness is the highest form of protection for our federal lands

Q: Which areas are included in the Colville National Forest's June 30, 2011, proposed action recommendations for wilderness?

A: The Forest Service is considering recommending around 101,000 acres of additional wilderness in the Colville National Forest. About 13,500 acres would be added to the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness (some 40,000 acres, established in 1984), helping better connect and protect that area. The remaining 87,500 acres include portions of the Abercrombie-Hooknose, Bald Snow, Profanity, and Hoodoo roadless areas.

This is the first time wilderness has been considered by the Forest Service on the Colville since 1984. Today, less than 3% of the Colville National Forest is Congressionally designated wilderness, protected for all Americans, representing less than 1% of all wilderness in Washington.

Roadless area descriptions & map

Wilderness defined

Q: What is federally protected wilderness?

A: Wilderness is the highest form of protection for our federal lands. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." The Act directed federal agencies to identify qualifying lands around the United States to be protected by act of Congress. It defined wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain" and lands that have "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." "Untrammeled" means "unrestrained."

Wallace Stegner's classic wilderness letter from 1960
Wilderness heritage. Northeast Washington wilderness hows and whys

Q: How are wilderness areas recommended and created?

A: Only Congress can designate wilderness. Every President since Johnson has signed wilderness bills, which add an extra layer of protection for our public lands. The Act and later enabling acts instructed federal agencies to identify and recommend qualifying public lands for wilderness protection; however, just about anyone can recommend wilderness to their elected representatives in Congress.

Q: Who manages wilderness?

A: Wilderness areas are managed by the four federal land management agencies: Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service.

Q: Does an area have to be absolutely pristine, to qualify for wilderness status?

A: It is very rare anywhere in the United States to have an area that has no influence from air traffic overflights, old evidence of past use (for example very old scars of past mining roads), or light or visual pollution from some vantage point within wilderness. Congress has interpreted these influences as being "insignificant" in light of greater wilderness values.

Q: What is the status today for wilderness in Washington?

A: Much of the protected wilderness today in Washington was designated in the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act. With the exception of the Salmo-Priest, Wilderness, that designation largely left out roadless wild lands in northeastern Washington. Today less than 1% of all wilderness in Washington is found east of the Cascades, and less than 3% of the Colville National Forest is currently designated as wilderness.The Forest Service has just released a plan that recommends wilderness for the Colville and Okanogan-Wenatchee Forests and is seeking public input on new wilderness protections.

Access & use

Q: Might new wilderness designation exclude kids, the elderly, the handicapped, people who aren't physically fit, or people who otherwise just want to drive through their forests?

A: Anyone who can walk or ride a horse can enjoy most wilderness areas. People confined to wheelchairs can also use wilderness trails; that access is written into wilderness law.

On public lands less stringently protected than wilderness, eg, most of our public lands, there are many miles of trails which are easily accessible and perfect for families with young children, the elderly, or those who prefer a less demanding form of wild recreation. Horse riders enjoy wilderness trails, people seeking an easy overnight experience in the backcountry can hire the services of outfitters and guides, and canoers and kayakers can savor untamed rivers and pristine lakes.

The national forests of Washington have 18,000 miles of road suitable for passenger vehicles (not including highways)--plenty of opportunities to explore by car. Unprotected and neighboring protected wild lands are the scenic backdrop to a great many popular roads and highways.

Q: Doesn't wilderness protection mean that motorcycle and mountain bike riders cannot ride in these roadless lands?

A: Citizens of Washington love their wilderness areas, but right now some of our established wilderness areas are being overwhelmed by people. By putting qualifying wild areas into the wilderness system, we can ensure that Americans will always have enough pristine wild places to discover and enjoy.

Wilderness is popular partly because of its unmechanized character, where anyone can escape the rush of modern life and adopt a pace to match nature. It's true that wilderness is closed to motorcycles, jeeps, mountain bikes, snowmobiles, and other mechanized travel. But today, of the lands in Washington's national forests, 70% is available for motorized recreation.

Q: How do trails fit in?

A: Trails are recognized as an important resource within wilderness. We need trails in wilderness to visit and explore those areas. Having areas protected as wilderness ensures that the trails there will not be ruined by motorized vehicles, logging, road construction, or mining operations.

Q: Is horseback riding allowed in wilderness?

A: Horses and pack animals are expressly allowed in wilderness. The opportunity to ride long distances in the backcountry with no worries about the noise and intrusions of motorized vehicles is one of the great features of wilderness.

Q: What about hunting?

A: Opportunities for backcountry hunting and fishing experiences abound in designated wilderness on national forest lands.

Q: What about grazing?

A: The Wilderness Act of 1964 quite specifically allows continued livestock grazing for pre-established allotments in wilderness, and ranchers can expect to see minimal impacts from wilderness designation.

Horseback riding is welcome in wilderness
Horseback riding is welcome in wilderness

Q: Will we have to wait in line for use permits or pay heavy fees to use wilderness areas?

A: Permit systems for wilderness entry happen when limited areas are overloaded by visitors. Such limitations are inevitable if we don't expand the wilderness system beyond its present size. If additional wilderness areas can be created, there will be less need for permits limiting public use. However, if we allow the 3 million acres of remaining unprotected wild lands to be degraded by logging, road construction, mining, and off-road vehicle use, that much less land will be available for wilderness recreation. Federal law forbids fees for the purpose of limiting wilderness entry.

Q: Would wilderness designation close roads used for hunting and other recreational purposes? 

A: The areas in the Colville under consideration for wilderness are designated roadless areas that have no open system roads and are effectively road-free. Likewise, roads adjacent to proposed wilderness areas, like Albion Hill Road or South Sherman Road, would not be part of any wilderness area and would remain open despite rumors to the contrary.

Fire & weeds

Q: How do we prevent our rural communities from burning if they are surrounded by wilderness areas and entry for management is limited?

A: The Wilderness Act and other laws permit entry into wilderness and the suppression of wildfires within wilderness if they present clear threats to public health and safety, or to property or resources on surrounding lands. While minimum-impact firefighting is preferred in wilderness. In extreme danger, aerial firefighting with water and flame retardants is allowed, as well as mechanical equipment on the ground.

The Forest Service develops a fire management plan for each wilderness, which specifies how fires are to be fought and identifies natural features that can serve as natural fire breaks to aid firefighting. These plans often also allow the Forest Service to perform prescribed burning to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. Such plans are developed with the involvement of local communities to include their concerns.

Q: How are we going to control harmful weeds if an area is made wilderness?

A: Nearly the full range of management options is available to control and eliminate noxious weeds in wilderness, though low-impact methods such as hand pulling are preferred. Since many noxious weeds are spread by motor vehicles, protecting areas is actually perhaps the best way to minimize new weed invasions.

Economic impacts

Q: What about effects on employment that new wilderness areas might have?

A: While some rural parts of the state rely on natural resources such as timber or mined minerals, many studies today show that wilderness has equally positive economic value for recreation and quality of life. The possible loss of jobs caused by protecting new wilderness is often overstated. The presence of protected wilderness provides good, family-wage jobs in outfitting and guiding, businesses that support fishing, hunting, hiking, boating, and backcountry skiing, and with the manufacturers and suppliers that support such recreation.

In Washington, there are forty times more recreation-dependent jobs in national forests than timber-based jobs. The presence of nearby wilderness is an important feature of many small communities, making them desirable places to live and to attract new businesses.

Washington would be in a far less competitive position without large tracts of wilderness that greatly enhance residents' quality of life. For example, protecting wilderness can help ensure a continued and stable, high-quality supply of water to dozens of rural communities in Washington.


Q: How does wilderness affect wildlife?

A: When we preserve wild lands, we also protect wildlife by protecting the unique homes — their habitats — where wildlife live. These special places are exceptionally significant to wildlife because they provide habitat and room to roam for an incredible array of wildlife, including grizzly bears, mountain caribou, wolverine, lynx, wolves and other animals between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. One of the best ways to preserve and connect habitat is to designate wilderness areas that are kept wild and natural, and where people can visit but do not remain.

Columbia Highlands

Q: How much area would be put into wilderness, and where are the areas?

A: About 3 million acres of still unprotected, roadless, wilderness-quality lands still exist in Washington, and most qualify for inclusion in the wilderness system. Wild forests and inventoried roadless areas can be found throughout the Okanogan Highlands, Kettle River Range, and Selkirk Mountains (the Columbia Highlands) in northeast Washington; Cascade Mountains; Olympic Mountains; and Blue Mountains in southeast Washington.

Washington's unprotected wild areas are almost entirely on our state's national forests, with the exception of Chopaka Mountain, on Bureau of Land Management land in Okanogan County.

Q: Don't we have enough wilderness already? How much is enough?

A: When the 1984 Wilderness Act passed, outside of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, much of northeast Washington was left behind. Less than 3% of the Colville National Forest is currently designated as wilderness, representing less than 1% of all wilderness in Washington (which is mostly found in the Cascades).

With the population of Washington likely to double in the next 50 years and with suburban development spreading throughout the state, it's becoming more and more important to preserve the wild areas that still exist. Biologists emphasize the importance of preserving remaining wild habitat areas to help make sure that rare wildlife and fish can survive.

Since some of our existing wilderness areas are getting crowded, the public needs to have additional places to hike, backpack, fish, snowshoe, hunt, and otherwise find self-reliance in nature. The Forest Service has administratively protected some wild areas from logging and development, but that protection is not permanent. Wilderness designation gives certainty of protection for future generations of wildlife and people.

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