Frequently Asked Questions

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National Conservation Area

What is a national conservation area?
National Conservation Area (NCA) is a legislative tool used by Congress to conserve, protect, restore, and manage public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. These lands feature exceptional scientific, cultural, ecological, historical, and recreational values.

The National Landscape Conservation System, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), includes 16 NCAs with 3 of them located in Arizona, including Gila Box Riparian, Las Cienegas, and San Pedro Riparian NCA. Currently all NCAs are managed by the BLM.

What activities are allowed in a national conservation area?
Unlike wilderness areas, there is not a single congressional act which identifies allowable uses and that guides management of National Conservation Areas. Instead, the NCA’s establishing legislation identifies the unique values to be protected and then provides direction as to how that is to be accomplished by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on a case-by-case basis. The BLM is directed by the establishing legislation to create and implement a resource management plan (RMP). The RMP would permit the recreational uses allowed in the new NCA and dictate specific management actions designed to protect the values (cultural, scenic, wildlife, etc.) for which the area was set aside. These actions could include wilderness management, wildlife protection areas, recreational zones, or other diverse management prescriptives.
What happens to private or state lands in national conservation areas?
National Conservation Area designation applies only to federal lands. Private property owners are guaranteed access to their land.

General Wilderness

What is wilderness?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System to allow Congress to designate certain public lands as Wilderness areas "for preservation and protection in their natural condition." Only Congress can designate wilderness areas, and only on federal public lands.

Wilderness is the highest level of protection for federal public land available in the United States. Today, a little more than 4% of the continental United States is protected as Wilderness; Arizona has 90 wilderness areas, protecting 6% of its statewide acreage.

What can I do in wilderness areas?
Wilderness areas are open to hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, outfitting and guiding, backpacking, horseback riding, pack trips, wheelchairs (including medically necessary motorized wheelchairs), bird-watching, scientific research and nature study, control of fire and insect and disease outbreaks, livestock grazing, and mining on pre-existing claims. Any form of non-mechanized use is generally permitted, and motorized travel may occur in cases of emergency (e.g., rescue, border patrol, fire).
What activities can harm wilderness areas?
The Wilderness Act protects wilderness areas from road building, oil and gas drilling, logging, mechanical vehicles such as dirt bikes and off-road vehicles, mountain bikes (certain motorized wheelchairs are allowed), new mining claims, new reservoirs, power lines, and pipelines.
What happens to private or state lands in wilderness areas?
Wilderness designation applies only to federal lands. Private property owners are guaranteed access to their land. Studies have shown that property values go up in areas that are near federally protected lands.

Common Questions & Myths about Wilderness

Doesn't wilderness mean "no access" to my public lands?
Access is an important issue for wildlife managers, ranchers, hunters, and hikers who rely on roads to reach stock developments, trailheads, and other access points on public lands in the West Desert. The Wilderness Act explicitly allows grazing in wilderness, and a wilderness designation would not affect grazing rights or hurt ranchers’ ability to access this land and their grazing allotments. Opportunities for motorized recreation will remain ample on other roads and recreation areas found in the West Desert region, including those adjacent to any designated wilderness.
How does wilderness help energize the economy?
Protected public lands, such as wilderness, have been shown to boost local economies. Wild public lands make outstanding vacation destinations for families on a budget. In addition, wilderness designation is generally a cheap management strategy for the government — and taxpayers — as it encourages minimal development and capital investment compared to the unaffordable construction and maintenance costs of excessive roads and highly developed recreational facilities on non-wilderness public lands. More importantly, protected public lands act as an economic engine: counties where more than 60 percent of the federal public lands are in protected status (wilderness, national parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments, etc.) have grown 66 percent faster from 1970 to 2000 than counties where the same percentage of public land had no permanent protective status.
Can I hunt in wilderness?
Absolutely. Non-motorized hunting and game retrieval is allowed in wilderness. In fact, hunters were among the first — and most passionate — advocates for wilderness protection in the 19th century. They remain some of our best allies in protecting quiet, intact backcountry areas where game species prefer to reproduce, forage, and raise their young to healthy populations. Wilderness protects the increasingly rare opportunity for quiet tracking and fair chase of game on our public lands.
Why is wilderness better for wildlife than other protected lands?
Habitat fragmentation from motorized trails on our public lands is now the leading cause of wildlife decline. With exploding development in Maricopa County and elsewhere in Arizona, this is a growing problem, but wilderness designation can halt this kind of wildlife habitat degradation. Wildlife management research and peer-reviewed scientific literature document the beneficial nature of roadless and wilderness lands for wildlife, including big game species and those needing connected corridors for migration between wild areas.
Isn't wilderness only for environmentalists?
The federal agencies that administer our public land must consider (take into account/allow for?) a host of potential uses. Just as agencies manage our public lands for oil and gas development, mining, grazing, and recreation activities, they are also obligated to take into account wilderness values and character. Wilderness designation preserves multiple uses of public land, including hunting, grazing, and horseback riding. In fact, experiencing wilderness requires little more equipment than a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, a good map, water, and eagerness to explore.
What's the difference between wilderness and a national park?
Many national parks contain wilderness areas, although the park itself is not a wilderness in entirety. Wilderness areas are defined as roadless areas on public lands that have been designated by Congress to be preserved in their primitive condition. Parts of many national parks are also preserved in a highly natural condition in which roads, mechanical devices, and permanent structures are not allowed. While national parks can also include developed, roaded areas, wilderness areas do not. With few exceptions, grazing and hunting are not allowed in national parks, whereas they are allowed in wilderness areas.

Emergency Response and Security in Wilderness Areas

What happens if I'm lost or an emergency arises in a wilderness area?
Part of the attraction of wilderness is a sense of adventure, self-reliance and remoteness, but unfortunately this also means accidents may occur. Wilderness designation allows rescue by emergency vehicle or helicopter in wilderness areas. While emergency rescue is possible in these remote areas, visitors should take care to let other people know where they plan to go and bring appropriate backcountry gear and provisions (e.g., basic first-aid supplies, updated maps, and plenty of drinking water).
Does a wilderness designation impede local law enforcement or homeland security efforts?
Motorized travel, including OHV, trucks and helicopters, is allowed in cases of emergency and to stop illegal border activities. The Wilderness Act empowers border patrol agents, other federal agents and local law enforcement officials to do everything they can to aggressively pursue and capture illegal immigrants and suspected criminals in wilderness areas.

This authority is further re-enforced by the Department of Homeland Security’s 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The inter-agency MOU between the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture details procedures to be followed on federally-managed public lands, and specifically in designated wilderness areas, including the following: Section IV, B, 4: "Nothing in this MOU is intended to prevent Border Patrol agents from exercising existing exigent/emergency authorities to access lands, including authority to conduct motorized off-road pursuit of suspected CBVs [cross-border violators] at any time, including in areas designated or recommended as wilderness...".

How do we respond to fire in wilderness areas?
Public safety is the number one priority of land managers, who may take whatever actions necessary to fight fire in wilderness. Motorized equipment is allowed to enter wilderness areas when fighting wildfires or to respond to other types of emergencies. Fire managers within wilderness are allowed to use controlled, prescribed burns where needed to clear underbrush or other fuels to keep them from building to hazardous levels. However, experience has shown that forest fires are less common in wilderness areas. Fire ignitions are almost twice as likely to occur in roaded areas as they are in wild, roadless areas.

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