50 Years of Wilderness Protection: The Federal Government’s Evolving Role

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964.[1]  Congress passed the Act to keep certain undeveloped federal lands “untrammeled by man” and to maintain their “primeval” character.[2]  To date, the National Wilderness Preservation System, which was created by the Act, includes more than 100 million acres of land across the United States.[3]

The Wilderness Act states that government agencies must administer wilderness areas “for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness,”[4] and should manage them “to preserve [their] wilderness character.”[5]  The Act does not specify whether “preserving” wilderness means leaving it entirely “untrammeled” to develop naturally, or whether the government should take an active approach to ensure that the land remains in its “primeval” state.  The agencies responsible for implementing the Act, however, chose the active approach, promulgating regulations that specified the agencies would “restore the wilderness character of the land” when necessary.[6]

Exactly what sort of restoration is appropriate remains the subject of litigation, even after 50 years.  One recent example is Maughan v. Vilsack, a case currently on interlocutory appeal before the Ninth Circuit.[7]  Maughan challenges the Forest Service’s alleged role in a program by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (“IDFG”) to eliminate two wolf packs in the Frank Church Wilderness Area in order to restore the area’s elk population.[8]  Interestingly, the federal government reintroduced wolves to that area in the mid-1990s to restore the wolf population, which had been decimated by unregulated hunting.[9]  Now, however, the wolf population has recovered, and the elk population has suffered as a result.[10]

Maughan claims that the Forest Service authorized IDFG’s use of a Forest Service cabin and airstrip and therefore implicitly approved the IDFG’s hunting program.[11]  He moved to enjoin further hunting in the area and sought a temporary restraining order, but the district court denied his motions, reasoning that he had failed to identify a final agency action and was therefore unable to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of his Administrative Procedure Act claims.[12]

Although the district court held that the Forest Service was not sufficiently involved in IDFG’s wolf management plan to warrant the issuance of a preliminary injunction, Maughan nevertheless presents interesting questions about the federal government’s role in managing wilderness areas.  Maughan claims that preserving the Frank Church Wilderness Area requires the federal government to ensure only that “ecological processes will be allowed to operate freely”[13] and asserts that the federal government should take an entirely hands-off approach to wilderness management.

Such a “hands-off” approach would be inconsistent, however, with regulations specifying that agencies may take affirmative actions to “restore the wilderness character of the land.”[14]  Moreover, the federal government reintroduced wolves in the 1990s to “restore” the over-hunted wolf population.  Had the government allowed “ecological processes [to] operate freely,” as Maughan argues it should, the wolf population in the Frank Church Wilderness Area would not be as robust as it is today.  Does the Act allow restoration only to counteract the effects of over-hunting and other intentional activities?  Once an agency acts to restore a wilderness area, is it required to then take a “hands-off” approach in hopes that nature will restore a proper balance?  Or do previous acts of restoration permit ongoing management?

The role federal agencies play in preserving and managing wilderness areas will likely continue to develop and evolve in the future, as global warming and other broad environmental changes affect wilderness areas in novel ways.  This winter, for example, the National Park Service considered whether and how to address the indirect effects of global warming on the wolf population in Isle Royale National Park, a wilderness area located on an island in Lake Superior.[15]  The wolf population on Isle Royale has fallen drastically, and now fewer than ten individuals remain.[16]  Unusually warm summers have contributed to a declining moose population, an important food source for Isle Royale wolves, and warmer winters have prevented the formation of ice bridges between Isle Royale and mainland Michigan, which had enabled new wolves to come to Isle Royale to reinvigorate the gene pool. [17]  In the 1960s, stable ice bridges formed almost yearly, but between 1998 and 2011, only one sufficiently stable ice bridge had formed. [18]

This winter, scientists studying wolves on Isle Royale urged the National Park Service to consider introducing new individuals to the island to reinvigorate the gene pool.[19]  But would such direct involvement be contrary to the Wilderness Act?  Do the Act and agency regulations, which permit “restoration,” also allow agencies to take preventative measures?  These questions will be saved for another day, it seems, as an ice bridge formed this February, linking Isle Royale to the mainland once again.[20]


-Sommer Engels is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at shengels@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Pub. L. No. 88-577, 78 Stat. 890 (1964)

[2]16 U.S.C. § 1131(c).

[3] Tiffany Halloway, U.S. Forest Service to Mark 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, USDA Blog, http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/01/16/u-s-forest-service-to-mark-50th-anniversary-of-wilderness-act/.

[4] 16 U.S.C. § 1131(a)

[5] 16 U.S.C. § 1133(b)

[6] See, e.g., 36 C.F.R. § 293.2 (Forest Service regulations specifying that “National Forest Wilderness Resources shall be managed to . . . where necessary, restore the wilderness character of the land.”).

[7] Maughan v. Vilsack, 9th Cir. No. 14-35043.

[8] Maughan v. Vilsack, 2014 WL 201702 (D. Idaho Jan. 17, 2014) (order denying preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order); Idaho Department of Fish and Game Predation Management Plan for the Middle Fork Elk Zone, 10 (February 2014), available at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/wildlife/planMiddleForkPredation.pdf.

[9] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Reintroduction of Gray Wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho: Final Environmental Impact Statement (1994), available at http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wolf/eis_1994.pdf.

[10] IDFG Predation Management Plan, supra note 8, at 1-2, 5.

[11] Maughan Compl.¶ 4, 2014 WL 894756 (Jan. 8, 2014).

[12] Maughan, 2014 WL 201702, at *3-4.

[13] Maughan 9th Cir. Br. at 37.

[14] 36 C.F.R. § 293.2.

[15]National Park Service, Isle Royale to Hold Public Information Meetings about Wolf Management, http://www.nps.gov/isro/naturescience/isle-royale-to-hold-public-information-meetings-about-wolf-management.htm; The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale, http://www.isleroyalewolf.org/overview/overview/the_setting.html.

[16] Phil Bencomo, Isle Royale Wolf Found Dead on Mainland, Lake Superior Magazine (Feb. 25, 2014), http://www.lakesuperior.com/blogs/superior-notes/isle-royale-wolf-found-dead-on-mainland/.

[17] John Vucetich, Michael Nelson & Rolf Peterson, Should Isle Royale Wolves be Reintroduced? A Case Study on Wilderness Management in a Changing World, George Wright Forum, 129-30 (2012), http://isleroyalewolf.org/sites/default/files/tech_pubs_files/Vucetich%20et%20al%202012%20GW%20Forum.pdf.

[18] Id. at 130.

[19] Id. at 136; see also John Vucetich, Michael Nelson & Rolf Peterson, Predator and Prey, a Delicate Dance (May 8, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/opinion/save-the-wolves-of-isle-royale-national-park.html.

[20] Phil Bencomo, What This Winter’s Ice Bridge to Isle Royale Means for the Island and Its Wolves, Lake Superior Magazine (Feb. 17, 2014), http://www.lakesuperior.com/the-lake/natural-world/isle-royale-ice-bridge-climate-change-and-wolves-140217/.

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