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Frequently Asked Questions: Wilderness Laws

What is the Wilderness Act of 1964?

The Wilderness Act is a law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964. The Wilderness act created the National Wilderness Preservation System "to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as ‘wilderness areas,’ and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment as wilderness…" The act states that
A 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.
Another key section of the act stipulates that wilderness generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

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What is FLPMA?

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), passed by Congress in 1976, defined the role of the BLM. Among other things, it:
  1. Directed BLM lands to be managed under the doctrine of multiple use.
  2. Repealed R.S. 2477 (though valid claims from before 1976 were grandfathered in).
  3. Directed BLM to inventory all roadless areas and assess their potential for wilderness designation.

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What is the NEPA?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) directs all federal agencies (including the BLM) to examine the environmental consequences of any major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment. This law does not deal explicitly with wilderness, but it is the major tool used by wilderness advocates to protect proposed wilderness areas that lack WSA status.

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What is an EIS (or DEIS of FEIS)?

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is the form the environmental analysis mandated by NEPA takes for major federal actions, although for smaller federal actions, a less elaborate Environmental Assessment (see below) is performed. After an initial public scoping period, the agency produces a Draft EIS (DEIS). There is then another public comment period, after which the agency publishes the Final EIS (FEIS). The federal agency is obliged to consider public input, although to what extent is a question sometimes settled by the courts.

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What is an EA? What is a FONSI?

An Environmental Assessment (EA) can be thought of as a watered down version of an EIS. The job of an EA is to show that the action under consideration is unlikely to result in a significant environmental impact, and that therefore a full EIS is not needed. The final component of an EA is, in fact, a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI). Since Eas are much easier to prepare, federal agencies strongly prefer them to EISs. Whether an EA of an EIS is more appropriate is often a point of contention between environmentalists and federal agencies. What are some examples of actions that would probably require only an EA? Would require a full EIS? Things like constructing stock tanks, small to medium filming projects and fence construction generally require only an EA. Things like copper mines, major road construction, and dam building generally require a full EIS.

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What’s this I hear about private contractors, hired by developers, writing EISs?

Due to staff shortages, the BLM often has large EISs written by private contractors. The BLM supervises the work, but because the contractors are chosen and paid by the company proposing the action under consideration (mine, highway, whatever), the EIS contractors often slant the analysis in favor of the company. BLM officials confirm off the record that this is a serious problem and that the system is in need of reform.

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