Washington Law Review


When Old Becomes New: Reconciling the Commands of the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act

March 01, 2013 | 88 Wash. L. Rev. 525

Abstract:  The Wilderness Act created a national framework for the protection of wilderness areas. Although the statute defines wilderness as an area “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” it leaves room for the “public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” As such, the Wilderness Act clarifies that its purposes are “within and supplemental” to other land-use statutes, including statutes like the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which created a national scheme for preserving historic places and structures. When considering the Wilderness Act relative to the NHPA, agencies and courts have interpreted agency obligations under each act differently. Though the historical context, text, and purpose of each statute indicate that historic preservation efforts should be permitted within wilderness areas, courts have read the two acts as mutually exclusive and held that the Wilderness Act takes precedence over the NHPA. The two statutes can be harmonized. To clarify the law in this area, however, Congress should amend the Wilderness Act to provide an express exception for preservation efforts in compliance with the NHPA.

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