The Underappreciated Role of the National Environmental Policy Act in Wilderness Designation and Management

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Lorena M. Wisehart, J.D. 2013, Lewis & Clark Law School.

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Environmental Law

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Env't L.


On its 50th anniversary, the Wilderness Act owes much to the effect of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), both in terms of the number of acres in the national wilderness system and in the management of designated wilderness areas. Courts have closely scrutinized federal land management agency actions that threaten wilderness qualities — and this article maintains that the usual vehicle has been NEPA. Enacted a little over a half-decade after the Wilderness Act, NEPA was instrumental in the doubling of wilderness acres in the 1980s, as Congress added wilderness areas and released other areas to multiple uses in response to a NEPA injunction imposed on U.S. Forest Service management. NEPA has also had a considerable effect on wilderness area management, curbing timber cutting and recreational activities and, in combination with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, requiring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to pursue the least damaging environmental alternative to re-routing a road bisecting wilderness study areas. NEPA’s influence on potential wilderness remains large a half-century after the passage of the Wilderness Act, as NEPA has ratified the Forest Service’s roadless rule, which will protect potential wilderness areas from most developments, making them eligible for future wilderness designation. And NEPA has required BLM to identify and publicly disclose lands with wilderness characteristics when revising its land plans. Thus, NEPA has fulfilled its mission of improving environmental decisionmaking by encouraging the designation of new wilderness areas, insisting on careful management of existing wilderness, and approving both the protection of large roadless areas in national forests and the identification of roadless areas in BLM land plans. Without NEPA, there would be considerably less to celebrate on the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary.

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