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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Wilderness Inholdings

University of New Mexico
El Malpais National Monument.

Wilderness areas represent the highest degree of protection the federal government grants to public lands. They’re managed for values of solitude, scenery, and natural habitat.But across the West wilderness areas are dotted with private inholdings that were claimed by homesteaders and miners long before the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. Many of those areas remain vulnerable to development, including the building of roads and houses and the diversion of springs and streams.

Under today’s tight budget constraints, the federal government has few dollars available to buy and restore these grandfathered patches. It’s been estimated that 180,000 acres of inholdings remain within the 41 million acres of designated Western wilderness. Some of this land, including working mines and ranches, will likely always remain private.

But others have stepped in to buy inholdings where sellers are willing. Nonprofit organizations and private donors have worked to pay for and facilitate such transfers. In the past few years, purchases of hundreds of wilderness inholdings have been brokered by the Wilderness Land Trust and Trust for Public Land alone.

That includes the ruins of Native American dwellings on 320 acres in El Malpais National Monument, which protects unique lava flows and plant communities in west-central New Mexico. Newly protected areas also include rare desert springs on 640 acres within the Hells Canyon Wilderness in the Hieroglyphic Mountains northwest of Phoenix.

Those land purchases represent the ultimate long-term investment: dollars spent now to benefit visitors who can enjoy those places far into the future.

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