Exhibits: The Lands: National Landscape Conservation System
Wilderness Study Areas
An area designated by a Federal land-management agency (the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service, or the Fish and Wildlife Service) as having wilderness characteristics, thus making it worthy of consideration by Congress for wilderness designation. While Congress considers whether to designate a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) as permanent wilderness, the Federal agency managing the WSA does so in a manner as to prevent impairment of the area's suitability for wilderness designation. The BLM manages 604 WSAs encompassing 17.2 million acres.
Red Desert Wilderness Study Areas
In 1976, Congress directed the BLM to evaluate all its remaining roadless areas for their wilderness potential according to the qualifications listed in the Wilderness Act of 1964: outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, features of scientific, historic, or scenic value, and little or no sign of human influence. The BLM studied 860 areas, covering 27 million acres of the western states and Alaska. Of these, 330 areas (9.7 million acres) have been recommended to Congress as potential wilderness areas. Congress has yet to act on these recommendations, and until they do, the lands are protected from development and other uses which may undermine their wilderness potential.
The lands remain open to recreation, including dispersed camping, boating, fishing, hunting, and skiing, but are closed to motorized vehicles, except on existing roads. Extractive uses, such as grazing, firewood collecting, and rockhounding are permitted according to existing BLM rules, but new mines or oil wells are prohibited.
A cluster of Wilderness Study Areas lie within the Red Desert, a remote region of badlands, sand dunes, and sagebrush steppes which contrasts sharply with the alpine splendor of the mountains just to the north, home to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In this low-lying desert, wild horses run free, antelope browse the scrubby vegetation, and a rare herd of desert elk winter and calve in the quiet valleys.
The Oregon Buttes, Honeycomb Buttes, Greater Sand Dunes, Buffalo Hump, Whitehorse Creek, South Pinnacles, and Alkali Draw Wilderness Study Areas protect important wildlife habitat, historic trails, archeological and paleontological sites, sensitive plant species, and critical watersheds. As a result of careful analysis, the BLM recommended all of the Oregon Buttes (5,700 acres) WSA as suitable for designation. In addition, they recommended wilderness status for 6,080 acres of the 10,300-acre Buffalo Hump WSA; 21,304 acres of the 27,109-acre Sand Dunes WSA; and 37,287 acres of the 41,404-acre Honeycomb Buttes WSA have been identified as suitable for designation (BLM 1991). Alkali Draw (16,990 acres), South Pinnacles (10,800 acres), Whitehorse Creek (4,002 acres), part of the Buffalo Hump WSA (4,220 acres), part of the Sand Dunes WSA (5,805 acres), and part of the Honeycomb Buttes WSA (4,117 acres) were not considered to meet the wilderness criteria. All recommendations are pending Congressional decision.
Visting the Red Desert WSAs
The seven wilderness study areas can be reached by going south from WY 28 or east of US 191. Roads into the Red Desert are rough at best and may be impassible in wet or snowy weather. One of the best roads is Oregon Buttes road, which runs south from South Pass. The Oregon Buttes were a long-awaited landmark for homesteaders headed to Oregon, California, and Utah, signaling the passage from the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide to the Pacific side. Oregon Buttes Road divides Oregon Buttes Wilderness Study Area from Honeycomb Buttes WSA, a rainbow colored badlands, which is home to a large wild horse herd as well as raptors, cougars, coyotes, desert elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. The highest point of Honeycomb Buttes WSA is Continental Mountain at 8431 feet, the forested slopes of which offer a cool island for summerstime visitors. The Killpecker sand dunes fall mostly within the aptly-named Sand Dunes WSA, and offer the visitor the chance to explore this unusual ecosystem. All the WSAs contain leks, where male sage grouse perform their annual mating rituals, strutting and booming in competition for females.
The heights of these WSAs date back 38 million years, to Eocene period, when mammals began to dominate the planet. The area contains a rich fossil record of this era, including fossils of unusual flamingo-like birds, crocodiles, turtles, fish, and other animals who inhabited the warm seas and shores of prehistoric Wyoming.
Traces of the more recent past include evidence of the most ancient human habitation in the US, ranging from 2000- 7000 years old. Rock art in the area includes both historic and prehistoric images. One particularly rich archeological site is a 300-year old winter encampment within the Buffalo Hump WSA, which indicates that native inhabitants had not yet encountered European immigrants. In addition, many sites within the WSAs have also been identified by traditional tribal elders as sacred, or as being central to Native American religious practices.
All the WSAs offer superb opportunities for stream and river fishing; big game hunting for elk, deer, moose, and antelope; small game, upland bird, and waterfowl hunting; swimming; camping; backpacking; horsepacking and riding; dirt bike and other ORV use; mountain biking; rock and petrified wood collecting; sight seeing of historic trails and places; wild horse viewing; wildlife viewing; and general photography. Access is best from May - October; the rest of the year the weather tends to make the access roads too difficult to drive.
All material copyright ©2002 - 2018, Public Lands Interpretive Association except photographs where ownership is otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.