Planning & Administration
In protecting wilderness character and resources and in managing wilderness use in accordance with the Wilderness Act, the managing agencies adhere closely to the "minimum requirements" or "minimum tool" concept. Minimum means the least possible and a requirement is a necessity. So, the minimum requirements concept is to first determines if any management action is necessary in wilderness, and then determine how to accomplish the action using the least amount (if any) of an otherwise prohibited use, such as the use of chainsaws or motorized vehicles. Forest Service Policy, for example, requires, with few exceptions, the use of traditional tools, such as cross-cut saws, and that employees acquire and maintain skills to travel and work in wilderness.
The Wilderness Act provides for administrative cabins and other facilities "...to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of the Act..." The need for all existing administrative structures and facilities, including cabins, fire lookouts, buildings, fences, trails, airfields, helipads, and communication facilities is evaluated in each wilderness management plan.
A decision to construct, maintain or remove an administrative facility is based primarily on whether it is required to preserve wilderness character or values or is essential to ensure public safety. Such decisions are not based on administrative convenience, economy of effort, or convenience to the public. Maintenance or removal of historic structures must also comply with cultural resource protection policies. Special rules apply that allow the construction, use, and occupancy of cabins and other structures in Alaska.
Trail systems are managed for the purposes of recreation and wilderness protection. To meet these objectives, existing trails may be expanded, relocated, restored or closed, and new trails may be built if necessary. Bridges are built only when the crossing is unsafe during the heaviest season of public use, where other structures are frequently destroyed or damaged by floodwater, or where unacceptable bank damage, or loss of aquatic habitat or populations will occur from visitors trying to cross.
Signs detract from the wilderness character of an area and make the imprint of man and management more noticeable. Only those signs necessary to protect wilderness resources or for public safety are permitted, and must be compatible with their surroundings and be as small as possible. However, accurate maps, route descriptions, and brochures are usually made available for visitors by the local managing agency office.
Since wilderness is managed by four different agencies with four different histories and institutional cultures, there are some differences between agency policies, and specific questions should be directed to the individual agencies. Close coordination through meetings, joint policy reviews and field trips helps ensure that the approach to management of wilderness by the four agencies is as consistent as possible. Managers from all federal agencies that manage wilderness attend wilderness management training sessions through the interagency Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center.
National leadership for wilderness management research is provided by researchers at the interagency Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. In the area of social science, research scientists provide managers with information on wilderness visitor characteristics, behaviors, and expectations. Research also provides information on how to most effectively carry out wilderness education programs. In the area of biological science, research provides an understanding of the ecological impacts that visitors may cause in various wilderness settings, and how those impacts can be minimized. Recently, wilderness fire scientists have begun to research and provide information to help better understand the natural role of fire in wilderness ecosystems and the consequences of fire suppression.
To tie together the social and biological sciences, research helps build management systems that effectively respond to environmental and social issues, and to the needs and preferences of visitors. In addition, much of the fundamental ecology, range, watershed, wildlife, and air quality research conducted by researchers and their cooperators outside wilderness is used to inform wilderness managers.
Technological creep has already been affecting wilderness; sometimes for good and sometimes not. Technology has helped people spend time in wilderness while impacting the land very little. Modern camp stoves have made campfires a luxury most of the time. Lightweight camping equipment has made foot and horse travel much easier, making the need for big stoves and heavy tents a thing of the past, and decreasing impacts on the land. People can easily pack out what they pack in.
On the other hand, some of today's technology has the potential to take away the sense of adventure and uncertainty that are part of the wilderness experience. Bob Marshall and Arthur Carhart certainly didn't envision satellite communications, cell phones, and global positioning systems (GPS) as part of the solitude and adventure of wilderness travel. Still, these technologies are becoming widely used by wilderness visitors. Their use may increase search and rescue calls by giving visitors a false sense of security, thereby causing some to take unnecessary risks. Additionally, these devices have the potential to negatively impact the wilderness experiences of other visitors who go to wilderness to escape from the mechanized world, essentially to be un-connected.
Probably the biggest challenge we all face is how to keep the "wildness" in wilderness and still make it available for the public to visit and enjoy. The demands on the wilderness resource will intensify over time as resources like clean water become more precious. There will be more pressures to modify weather over wilderness and to divert water in wilderness. There will be requests for uses of wilderness that cannot even be envisioned now, but they will come. When managers decide what to approve and what to deny, they must keep foremost the protection of the wilderness resource itself. The wilderness resource is fragile and can be lost through the erosion of seemingly inconsequential decisions.