September 3rd marked the 48th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which has been used to protect nearly 110 million acres of land to date. President Obama declared September to be National Wilderness Month for the 4th year in row.
It is fitting, then, that Washington State welcomed its latest designated Wilderness on September 14, 2012 – an addition within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area to the Stephen M. Mather Wilderness.
If you are thinking that you don’t recall a bill in this Congress to designate Wilderness in the Ross Lake NRA adjacent to North Cascades National Park, you are probably not alone. While there are two bills in the current Congress that would designate wilderness in Washington State – The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (HR 608/S 322) and the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (HR 5995/S 3329) – neither deals with the Wilderness designation that occurred this month, in an area known as Thunder Creek.
Diligent research would lead you to a reference on Thunder Creek in the Washington Parks Wilderness Act of 1988, the law that designated the majority of Wilderness on National Park Service-managed lands in Washington State. That legislation designated 1,728,138 acres of Wilderness within North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Olympic National Parks, as well as Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas.
That law, however, also identified a handful of areas as “Potential Wilderness,” including the 3,559-acre Thunder Creek unit.
So what is “Potential Wilderness”?
Wilderness.net, the federal government’s online resource for all things related to Wilderness (run by the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center) defines Potential Wilderness as:
“…lands that are surrounded by or adjacent to lands proposed for wilderness designation but that do not themselves qualify for immediate designation due to temporary non-conforming or incompatible conditions. The wilderness recommendation forwarded to the Congress by the President may identify these lands as "potential" wilderness for future designation as wilderness when the non-conforming use has been removed or eliminated. If so authorized by Congress, these potential wilderness areas will become designated wilderness upon the Department of Interior Secretary's determination, published in the Federal Register, that they have finally met the qualifications for designation by the cessation or termination of the nonconforming use.”
Potential Wilderness is a common, but less understood, provision in Wilderness bills nationwide. In our own state, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act of 1976 included potential wilderness provisions, as did the Washington Parks Wilderness Act of 1988.
The reason that Thunder Creek was not designated as Wilderness outright in 1988 was due to a potential non-conforming use. In this case, the City of Seattle was exploring the potential for hydropower development on Thunder Creek. The City has abandoned these plans, and with no other uses planned for the area, the Secretary was able to designate this area as Wilderness, as directed by the 1988 Washington Parks Wilderness Act.
Once the non-conforming use had been removed, all that was legally necessary to designate Thunder Creek as Wilderness was publishing the determination in the Federal Register. The National Park Service, however, made an extra effort to solicit public input on the determination through their Ross Lake National Recreation Area General Management Plan. Comments on the determination were overwhelmingly supportive.
Washington Wild, along with 12 other conservation groups, sent a letter to Secretary Salazar, urging him to make the designation final.
Washington Wild has worked in recent years to develop several wilderness proposals, including the Wild Sky Wilderness, which passed Congress and became law in 2008.
An example of a Potential Wilderness designation in current legislation can be found in the proposal to expand Wilderness areas in the Olympic National Forest. The Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, sponsored by Senator Murray and Congressman Dicks, proposes to designate 126,000 acres of forest land as Wilderness, including 5,346 acres of Potential Wilderness. In this case, the non-conforming use for these Potential Wilderness acres are deteriorating, old logging roads on Forest Service land that have been slated for decommissioning due to their high aquatic risk and high maintenance costs, but are awaiting funding to implement the work. In the event that the FS decides to decommission one of these legacy roads after the Wild Olympics legislation has passed, that area can then be designated as Wilderness without an additional act of Congress.
Potential Wilderness designations allow proponents the opportunity for flexibility when proposing protections for critical areas. It also assures relevant stakeholders that all non-conforming uses are being considered, and that those uses have to removed or eliminated in order for the Potential Wilderness designation to move forward.
In the case of the creation of the Stephen M. Mather Wilderness, which encompasses parts of the North Cascades National Park and the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, proponents were able to secure this designation by setting aside some lands as Potential Wilderness. Now, we are able to celebrate the addition of the Thunder Creek Unit to this beautiful area and we can be certain it will be enjoyed by current and future generations.