According to critics like the Wilderness Society, George W. Bush has distinguished himself as the President most at odds with wilderness preservation since passage of the Wilderness Act 40 years ago. Bush has signed off on adding just 530,000 acres to America’s wilderness legacy, the least of any President since Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in September 1964. Additionally, the Bush White House has lobbied extensively for increasing oil and gas drilling on wilderness lands throughout the nationwide 106-million acre wilderness system.
The Wilderness Society would like to see another 200 million acres, most of it in Alaska, given wilderness designation. A mere five percent of the nation is so protected.
While only Congress has the power to designate wilderness, most such proposals originate with the White House. By definition, pristine parcels of federal land 5,000 acres and larger can be considered for wilderness protection, whereby motorized vehicles and equipment—not to mention resource extraction and road-building—are prohibited. The Wilderness Act does allow for camping, hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, canoeing, horseback riding and livestock grazing in designated wilderness areas.
In 2003, the White House directed the Interior Department to allow resource extraction on lands proposed for wilderness but not yet designated by Congress. Environmental groups are attempting to block the order, but the Interior Department has issued oil and gas leases on tens of thousands of acres, primarily in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
Today nearly five percent of the American land base is designated as wilderness. The smallest parcel is Florida’s five-acre Pelican Island, and the largest is the nine million acre Wrangell-Saint Elias area in Alaska. The land Bush has designated for wilderness is mostly in Nevada, with some additional acreage in Colorado.