Wilderness Act Turns 50 As Eminent Domain Battle Brews

The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year, but pending public land acquisitions and possible eminent domain actions by the federal government make the anniversary of the law a controversial one. The legislation allowed for the creation of public lands that “retain their primeval character and influence.” The protective labeling ushered in under the Wilderness Act has not been utilized since 2009.

Wilderness Society Director Paul Spitler deemed the lack of activity by Congress as characteristic of the governing body’s “broader dysfunction.” Spirtler also said, “they seem to have lost the ability to compromise and move forward. Typically the Wilderness Act has been used to designate public lands such as national forests, wildlife refuges, and parks. The battle over the potential use of eminent domain to extend the lands of the California Coastal National Monument area is turning into a heated political debate.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated during a recent meeting in San Francisco that she will recommend that President Barack Obama go around Congress if the gridlock surrounding several public land monument bills does not subside soon. “The president will not hesitate,” she said. “I can tell you that there are numerous places that are ripe for setting aside, with a tremendous groundswell of public support.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Jewell said the “appetite for preserving American historic and cultural sites” remains high.

The Obama administration official also discussed the federal government acquiring more land for the California Coastal National Monument. The project is one of the land bills currently pending in Congress. One of the bills would increase the boundaries of Yosemite National Park and the other would initiate a placement of a monument and protected lands in the San Gabriel Mountains.

National Parks Conservation Association representative Kristen Brengel supports the proposal and said:

“It’s been nearly impossible to figure out how to get more funding for conservation work, whether it’s just getting money to run agencies or getting full funding for the Land and Water Conservation fund. There is almost no hope for the wilderness or monuments bills – they are being held up.”

Although some may like the idea of increased space for monuments and national parks, those who actually live on or work the land might tend to disagree. When the Blue Ridge Parkway was created in the southern Appalachian Mountains, families who had lived on the land for centuries were forced to relocate via eminent domain orders. The project began during the Great Depression as an economic stimulus project. The Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks were created in much the same manner, and ultimately connected to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) has tried to calm nervous homeowners within the proposed Yosemite expansion by saying their land “will not be affected in any way, and would only become part of Yosemite National Park upon voluntary sale, donation or exchange by the landowners.”

The Antiquities Act gave presidents the power to name new monuments, an authority which had resided with Congress. Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt, presidents have invoked the Antiquities Act in order to set aside “natural wonders.” In 1908, the Grand Canyon was designated a natural wonder by presidential decree, and was ultimately turned into a national park, even though local officials and residents objected.

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