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Frequently Asked Questions: Original BLM Wilderness Inventory

What was the original BLM inventory?

In 1976 FLPMA directed the BLM to inventory all roadless areas and assess their potential for wilderness designation. This inventory was done on a state by state basis. In Utah the inventory began in the late 1970s and was completed in 1980.

The purpose of the inventory was two-fold. First, it was to produce a list of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) – areas possessing wilderness characteristics as defined by the Wilderness Act, regardless of any other competing uses (such as mining claims, potential dam sites, etc.). These areas were to be managed as if they were designated wilderness until Congress passed a Utah wilderness bill, so that their wilderness characteristics would not be lost due to development in the interim.

The second result of the inventory was a recommendation for designated wilderness. This was to be those areas that the BLM thought merited wilderness designation, all things considered. WSAs are significant in that they are managed as de facto wilderness until a wilderness bill passes Congress, which typically takes many years. WSA status therefore protects an area until it is formally protected. When WSAs are created that include a large amount of acreage, wilderness advocates have a much stronger negotiating position. This is because if no wilderness bill is passed, the status quo will remain in force, meaning a large acreage of de facto wilderness. For this reason, it is in the interest of wilderness opponents, including BLM managers in charge of the original inventory, to designate as few WSAs as possible. The BLM ended up designating only 3.2 million acres of WSAs, whereas wilderness advocates documented 5.7 million acres of lands qualifying as wilderness. (The original WSA acreage was only 1.8 million acres, but was increased after a successful appeal by wilderness advocates.)

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How was the original BLM inventory inadequate?

The original inventory went seriously astray from policies set by Congress. Huge tracts were "inventoried" for wilderness suitability by helicopter without adequate fieldwork on the ground. Many inventory decisions violated the BLM’s own policy. Large and pristine areas were dropped because of minor human impacts around the periphery that could have been eliminated by boundary adjustments. Contrary to BLM rules, the agency dropped areas from the inventory lands with potential – real or imagined – for mineral development. The BLM considered other areas unsuitable because portions of the roadless areas were flat of sparsely vegetated and "lacked opportunity for solitude," ignoring the importance of wilderness for wildlife and ecosystem management.

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What is "cherry-stemming"?

If a dead-end road extends into another roadless area, the wilderness area boundary is sometimes drawn so as to exclude the road but include the land on both sides of the road. This is called a "cherry-stem," since the road bears some resemblance to a cherry-stem jutting into the wilderness area.

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