Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Recommendation Process

The Bureau of Land Management uses the following process to consider areas for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Wilderness Evaluation Process

With the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), Congress declared the value of retaining the public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the permanent benefit of the nation, and directed how the agency is to manage those lands. FLPMA directs the BLM to maintain an inventory its lands for all resource and their values, including lands possessing the resource of wilderness, as identified by the characteristics described in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Congress has the option and authority to designate those and other areas for wilderness preservation.

The BLM's wilderness inventory process can be separated into two evaluations: The first took place prior to 1991; the second is an ongoing process occurring since 1991. The inventory that took place prior to 1991 included the steps of inventory, study, reporting, and non-impairing management. Areas identified in the pre-1991 inventory are known as Wilderness Study Areas (WSA). The inventory process occurring after 1991 includes the steps of inventory, study, and resource management planning


The BLM evaluates all its lands for the presence or absence of the wilderness resource as required in Section 201(a) of FLPMA, which states: "The Secretary shall prepare and maintain on a continuing basis an inventory of all public lands and their resource and other values." Wilderness is a public land resource, as expressed in Section 2(a) of the Wilderness Act. Therefore, the resource inventory required by FLPMA includes the inventory of wilderness characteristics, consistent with the definition of wilderness found in Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act. The following three criteria must each be present in order for an area to possess wilderness characteristics: size, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for either solitude or a primitive and unconfined recreation:

  • Size - Roadless areas with over 5,000 acres of contiguous BLM lands, or smaller areas of sufficient size to make practicable the preservation of an unimpaired condition. Smaller areas may include: roadless islands, areas adjacent to other federal lands formally determined to have wilderness characteristics and protected by the administering agency, and other areas demonstrated to be of practical size. The word "roadless" refers to the absence of roads that have been improved and maintained by mechanical means to insure relatively regular and continuous use. A way maintained solely by the passage of vehicles does not constitute a road.
  • Naturalness - Areas which appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, and where any work of human beings is substantially unnoticeable.
  • Outstanding Opportunities for Solitude or a Primitive Unconfined Type of Recreation - Areas that have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. The word "or" means that the area has to possess one or the other, but does not have to possess opportunities for both elements.


The study phase examines all resource values of the areas containing wilderness characteristics and identifies the resources that will be enhanced or lost should the area's wilderness characteristics be protected or not. The study phase is completed through the BLM's land use planning process including a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document (usually an Environmental Impact Statement) which includes public participation. The Study phase evaluates resource information and use factors in an interdisciplinary process to decide the most appropriate public land uses, including:

  • Wilderness characteristics
  • Other resource values of the area
  • Current uses and management of the area
  • Potential uses of the area
  • The ability to protect and manage the area to preserve wilderness character should it be designated
  • Scarcity of all values, and long-term and short-term benefits to the public
  • The ability to coordinate with the planning programs of other governmental entities


The reporting phase recommends an area, or portions thereof, as suitable or non-suitable for wilderness designation based on the values identified from the study. The recommendation is the selected alternative in the NEPA document prepared during the study. This only applies to those areas identified as having wilderness characteristics (known as WSAs) prior to 1991 under the direction of Section 603 of FLPMA. The reporting phase includes a recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior to the President, and a recommendation of the President to the Congress. Congress has reserved for itself the authority to make final decisions on wilderness preservation, that is, designation as Wilderness and management under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

For areas identified as having wilderness characteristics after 1991, there is no reporting or recommendation made to Congress as to its suitability or non-suitability for wilderness designation. However, Congress has the option and authority to designate these areas, or other public lands, for wilderness preservation.


The BLM manages areas identified as having wilderness characteristics prior to 1991 (known as WSAs) so as to not impair their suitability for preservation as wilderness as required by Section 603(c) of FLPMA. The decision to terminate WSAs management is a Congressional decision, and so the BLM is required to maintain the suitability of WSAs for preservation as wilderness pending Congress' decision. This applies to all WSAs, regardless if the WSA was recommended as suitable or non-suitable for permanent protection of wilderness.

For areas identified after 1991 as having wilderness characteristics, protective management required under Section 603(c) of FLPMA does not apply. There is no pending Congressional wilderness decision for these areas, and so non-impairment management is not required. If the Record of Decision (ROD) in the BLM's Resource Management Plan (RMP) is to protect wilderness characteristics, the RMP further specifies the management actions that will be implemented to achieve protection. This protection is a resource allocation that will continue for the duration of the RMP and may be modified or changed through a new RMP.


There are a small number of WSAs that were established in two different processes than described above. The first are "natural" or "primitive" areas, so designated under the authority of the Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964, which became WSAs immediately with the passage of FLPMA. The second are areas directly designated by Congress as WSAs. 

Another variation involves reporting a suitable or non-suitable recommendation to Congress.  There are a small number of WSAs established between 1991 and 1993 that were not reported.  The Secretary's report to the President was in 1991, and so a number of WSAs established after that date were too late to be reported. Subsequent judicial decisions further established that the authority to designate additional WSAs expired in 1993.  That two year time period resulted in additional WSAs established through land use plan decisions but not included with previous WSAs.  Areas found to possess wilderness characteristics after 1993 are not designated as WSAs, but may be managed to protect the wilderness resource through decisions in the land use plan. 

Lastly, some minor variations in the wilderness inventory procedure exists.  Inventory procedures between 1976 and and 2012 relied on a policy called "the blue book" as clarified by several memorandums.  In 2012, BLM finalized a manual incorporating the previous policy with a number of clarifying policies to establish Manual 6310 - Conducting Wilderness Characteristics Inventory of BLM Lands. While some technical differences exist in the inventories occurring before and after 2012, the fundamental process has remained essentially unchanged throughout the history of BLM's inventory of its lands for wilderness characteristics.

Designation as Wilderness

Congress-and only Congress-has the authority to designate land as wilderness under the Wilderness Act.