“National Park Wilderness at Crossroads”

A movement to legally designate a half-million acres of Big Bend as wilderness is gaining steam.

From PEEReview       Spring 2022
A Publication of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

The National Park Service has a mixed relationship with the 1964 Wilderness Act.  On one hand, NPS manages 44 million acres of designated wilderness, more than any other agency. On the other hand, NPS has not advanced wilderness designations for another 26 million acres – an area the size of Tennessee.  Consequently, several “flagship” nature parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon do not have a single acre of designated wilderness and are “protected” only by NPS policies that can be waived or changed.

That may be changing for Texas’ Big Bend National Park.  Back in May 1978, President Carter asked Congress to designate more than 500,000 of Big Bend’s 800,000 acres as wilderness. Congress never acted on that request or similar presidential requests for 16 other parks.

In succeeding years, there has been no movement. Now a citizen s group, called “Keep Big Bend Wild” which includes PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a retired career NPS manager, is trying to get Congress to belatedly revive this 1978 recommendation.

While not a part of this effort, Big Bend’s Superintendent Bob Krumenaker is supportive, saying that while these lands are managed as wilderness, “That was basically a handshake deal, and a future superintendent might someday decide we need another lodge or another developed campground. The Wilderness Act recommends those areas that could remain wild should be guaranteed wild.”

PEEK has long urged NPS to fulfill its Wilderness Act responsibilities. Without wilderness designation, park backcountry remains vulnerable to commercial intrusion from more transmission corridors, pipelines, cell towers, and other structures (see accompanying story). Wilderness designation also strengthens park anti-degradation air quality protections and prevents mechanized recreation from penetrating deep into park back country. Perhaps the Big Bend initiative will revive the lost wilderness legacy in our national parks.

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