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."
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
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
Other significant additions to Colorado's wilderness were made in 1980
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
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
Canyon as part of the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness in 2000.
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.
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) »