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Colorado Wilderness Inventory

The Wilderness Act of 1964 is a rare example of poetry in American legislation. In this extraordinary law, the United States Congress expressed its desire that "an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States," and established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Congress determined that wilderness, "in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The Act further defined wilderness as "an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition."

Humanity's presence in wilderness was recognized, and Congress made allowances for non-impairing activities to continue within newly designated wilderness areas. Today, human activities allowed within wilderness include non-mechanized recreational activities such as hiking, horsepacking, floating, hunting, and fishing, as well as livestock grazing, fire suppression, treatment of insect infestations and diseases, and maintenance of existing water diversion facilities. Activities deemed incompatible with the purposes of wilderness include mining, logging, road construction, and use of mechanized equipment such as motor vehicles, snowmobiles, chainsaws, bicycles, and hangliders.


Wilderness Inventories Required by 1964 Wilderness Act

The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, but not the Bureau of Land Management, were originally directed by the original Wilderness Act to undertake studies of lands under their jurisdiction and make recommendations to Congress about which lands should be placed in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Congress reserved to itself the final decision as to the designation of wilderness areas.

In Colorado, both the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service completed the required wilderness
studies and reports during the 1970s. Congress acted on many of these recommendations, and by 1993 approximately 3.3 million acres of federal wilderness had been designated in National Parks and National Forests. The designations cover many of Colorado's most significant high-elevation, wildland resources, including five areas designated with the enactment of the original 1964 Act — Rawah, Mount Zirkel, Maroon Bells, West Elks, and La Garita — the Weminuche and Flat Tops wildernesses designated in 1975, Eagles Nest in 1976, and Indian Peaks and Hunter-Fryingpan in 1978.

Other significant additions to Colorado's wilderness were made in 1980 legislation with the culmination of the Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II and again in 1993 through follow-up legislation. Other significant additions to Colorado's wilderness were made in 1980 legislation with the culmination of the Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II and again in 1993 through follow-up legislation. Additional wilderness has since been designated in Colorado Gunnison Gorge (1999), Black Ridge Canyons (2000), Spanish Peaks (2000), and James Peak (2002).

Currently 3.39 million acres, approximately 5% of the entire area of the state is protected.

Congress Directs BLM to Inventory Wilderness
As the wilderness system grew, Congress and the public came to recognize the importance of desert wild country under the administration of the BLM, and in 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) which for the first time placed BLM on equal footing with the Forest Service. In FLPMA, Congress stated that it was the policy of the United States to retain ownership of the hundreds of millions of acres of BLM public lands throughout the West, and directed BLM to conduct a thorough review of its lands and make initial recommendations about the wilderness suitability of those lands to Congress by 1993.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as, among other things, an area with outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.

In Colorado, BLM initially determined that approximately 1.2 million acres of its eight million acres were largely roadless. However, in applying this definition, BLM decided that while one-third of these roadless lands did have some opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation, those opportunities were not of an outstanding nature. As a result, only 800,000 acres were identified as wilderness study areas by BLM in 1980.

Since 1980, BLM field offices around Colorado have conducted reviews of these potential wilderness areas and, after considering alternative uses for them such as mining and water projects, finally proposed approximately 400,000 acres, or just five percent of BLM land in Colorado, for designation as wilderness. Colorado BLM officials forwarded those recommendations to the President in October 1991 and President Bush submitted the recommendations to the Congress.


Citizens Conduct Own Wilderness Inventories

In the late 1950s, Colorado citizens began hiking into uncharted public wildlands in order to map and catalog ecologically special places that need protection from an encroaching civilization. With the passage of The Wilderness Act, citizens focused their inventory work on identifying and documenting wildlands that met the definitions set forth in the Act, such as opportunities for solitude and non-motorized recreation, relatively unnoticeable signs of human work, and features of ecological or scenic value. Citizens compiled photographs, maps, and records and, in 1973, one of the first citizen wilderness proposals was completed for a Rattlesnake Canyon Primitive Area, located on Bureau of Land Management lands. (Citizens proposed it as a primitive recreation area because at that time BLM lands were not eligible for wilderness designation under The Wilderness Act.) This citizen effort bore fruit 27 years later, when Congress finally protected Rattlesnake Canyon as part of the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness in 2000.

Throughout the 1980s, Colorado citizen groups conducted field studies separate from BLM. Determining the "outstanding" nature of solitude is a subjective procedure and in many cases, the citizens' proposed areas for wilderness included areas that the BLM had earlier discarded due to the agency's narrow definition of solitude and primitive recreation. Citizens initially published their 1980s-era citizen wilderness inventories in a 1994 proposal released as the Conservationists' Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands (CWP). This first citizens' proposal recommended wilderness designation for approximately 1.3 million acres of BLM lands.

Citizens Publish Updated Proposal in 2001
Colorado citizens groups, now under the umbrella of the Colorado Wilderness Network, continued their field inventory efforts during the 1990s. After several years of inventorying additional BLM roadless lands and holding public meetings across western Colorado, citizens unveiled proposals for another 17 areas totaling 245,519 acres. These areas were consolidated with the original 1994 Citizens Wilderness Proposal and compose the proposal published in 2001.


New Revisions in 2007
Colroado's Canyon Country Wilderness Proposal presently encompasses 62 areas and just over 1,650,000 acres of unprotected wildlands. These include the most magnificent landscapes under BLM jurisdiction. Because of the need to protect entire geographic features, the proposal includes some areas with combined BLM and Forest Service administration.


Inventory Protocol
The citizens' inventory of Colorado's lands for wilderness character was intended to be more thorough, more up-to-date, and more accurate than inventories conducted by the BLM and Forest Service. Coordinated by a coalition of conservation organizations, this effort utilized the Forest Service's standard definition of a "road," and applied a formal set of protocols and rigorous data standards. Citizens' inventories were performed in the field by volunteers and expert professionals using the latest technology: GPS (Global Positioning System) units and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping. This intensive data-collection project has led to a more complete and accurate map of truly roadless areas in Colorado.

Time to Act
The 1964 Wilderness Act reserves Congress' prerogative for final decisions on all wilderness lands. We urge our legislators to carefully consider some of the remarkable areas omitted from BLM’s official review either by oversight or mistake.


Print version of Colorado Wilderness Inventory (pdf) »

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© 2006 Colorado Wilderness Network.