The beauty of Wilderness Study Areas

Wilderness Study Areas offer excellent opportunities for outdoor recreation. Conservation Lands Fellow, Cameron Witten, at Little Book Cliffs WSA.

Photo by Phil Hanceford

Wilderness Study Areas are both a treasure and a tool, providing outstanding recreational opportunities with the promise of increased protections for their wilderness qualities.

Recently I visited my first Wilderness Study Area, Little Book Cliffs. Wildness Study Areas (WSA) are deserving landscapes which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is directed to ensure that land uses do not impact the wilderness characteristics of the land until Congress either designates them for protection or releases them to be managed for multiple uses.

This particular unit, Little Book Cliffs, is one of only three areas in the National Landscape Conservation System (National Conservation Lands) set aside specifically to protect wild, free roaming horses.

Accessibility and opportunity

“Wilderness” is not synonymous with “inaccessible”.  Just over a mile off highway 70 in Colorado, and less than 20 minutes outside Grand Junction, anyone can discover untrammeled landscapes and outstanding recreation opportunities in Little Book Cliffs. Its 36,000 acres of gently rolling plateaus, bisected by four major canyons. It provides excellent sagebrush and pinyon-juniper habitat for around 100-150 wild horses.

Wilderness study areas

Little Book Cliffs is just one of over 500 WSAs in the National Conservation Lands. The National Conservation Lands system protects 27 million acres of the most pristine historically, culturally and ecologically significant landscapes in the United States. Wilderness Study Areas account for over 12 million acres of the Conservation Lands, the largest single type of protection designation.

The beauty of WSAs is in their diversity and flexibility as a tool to both protect our treasured landscapes and support more sustainable applications of the traditional BLM multi-use approach to land management.

Wilderness Study Areas like Little Book Cliffs have generally been left in a natural state and provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation” to local communities, outdoor enthusiasts, sportsmen and scientists. They provide us with clean air, clean water and sustainable wildlife habitats, while simultaneously embodying the hope of stronger federal protections in the future.  

They also serve as outdoor laboratories, where conservationists and developers alike study everything from how to properly manage wild horses, to how best to allow ranching on public lands while protecting habitat.

These 27 million acres of National Conservation Lands, just like Little Book Cliffs, are open to everyone and owned by every American. That, in my opinion, is the real opportunity, and their true value. 

This article was written by Cameron Witten, a conservation lands fellow with The Wilderness Society.