Wilderness

Quick Facts

  • The nearly 110 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System equals 171,875 square miles, or 16,096 square miles larger than the State of California.
  • The authority to designate Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) was granted by the Federal Land Policy and Mangement Act of 1976 (FLPMA).  This authority expired in 1991, and to date the resolution of 27 million WSA acres remains in limbo. 
  • As of 2013, there were 36.1 million acres of federal mineral estate under lease for oil and natural gas development, or roughly one-third the area currently designated as Wilderness.  Leased acreage does not equal surface disturbance, so the footprint of oil and natural gas development is actually much smaller.

We Can Do Both: Develop Energy and Protect the Land

Oil and natural gas development leaves a small and temporary impact on the land, and coexists with other uses such as recreation and wildlife and cultural resource protection. In fact, areas with prior or even active oil and natural gas activity regularly are proposed for wilderness designation by members of Congress and environmental groups. Oil and natural gas development does not occur in National Parks or designated wilderness areas.

Almost 110 million acres of land, or approximately 17% of all federal land, are designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Another 84 million acres are protected within the National Park system. In addition, BLM protects another 27 million acres as Wilderness Study Areas, National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, and other protective designations. Despite this vast amount of protected land, special interest groups routinely call for more lands to be locked away from productive uses, including agriculture, mining, energy development, and certain types of recreation. Often their justification is that wilderness must be created to protect the land from oil and natural gas development.

U.S. Wilderness Areas

The darker shades of green, yellow, and purple are USFS, BLM, and NPS Wilderness areas

Yet these groups offer the American people a false choice: They claim the land must not be economically developed or it will destroy the land. They then turn around and propose lands with oil and natural gas activity as wilderness. This false choice raises the question: If energy development is as irreversibly destructive as the wilderness lobby claims, how is it that areas with energy development qualify as pristine and deserving of wilderness designation?

The answer is that we can have both: We can develop the energy today while still protecting and preserving the land for future generations. Oil and natural gas development has a small and temporary impact. Once a well is finished producing, the equipment is removed and the land is reclaimed to its prior state.

It is irresponsible to say in one breath that oil and gas causes irreparable damage to the environment and that areas with prior development should qualify for wilderness designation in the next.

Utah Public Lands Initiative

In the West, federal public lands comprise a large proportion of states’ total acreage, ranging from about 30% in Montana to 85% in Nevada. Unsettled land-use designations on these public lands, like Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), have been a source of discord among stakeholders who often have very different visions of the appropriate uses of public lands. Uncertainty about whether certain areas will remain open for oil and natural gas leasing or what types of additional restrictions will be applied have made developing energy on federal lands very difficult.

To break this impasse of public lands management, in 2012 Congressmen Rob Bishop started the Utah Public Lands Initiative and began conducting meetings with stakeholders to explore the idea of a legislative solution for federal lands in Utah. Stakeholders include the state, counties, local communities, conservation groups, industry groups, and others willing to sit down and compromise on a locally driven process of land exchange to protect areas truly deserving of conservation while enabling responsible development in appropriate areas.

As public lands are an integral part of robust development of oil and natural gas resources in the West, Western Energy Alliance has enthusiastically participated in the effort. The Alliance would like to see an agreement whereby lands with higher resource potential are prioritized for energy development and managed by the state, while others are appropriately set aside for conservation purposes. Such an agreement would be consistent with multiple-use principles. Western Energy Alliance will continue its active active participation in this effort to settle the status of many public lands in Utah while ensuring our ability to responsibly develop oil and natural gas resources.