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Forests and Wilderness Area

Public land includes both forest and wilderness area.  Under the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act 1971, all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands were treated as an integral part of the natural system of the public land[i].  Since the management of both unclaimed animals and wildlife was essential for achieving an ecological balance on the public lands, Congress was guaranteed the power to regulate and protect the wildlife[ii].

According to the National Wilderness Preservation System, all federal lands are designated as wilderness area.  The classification of wilderness area is the responsibility of Congress.  Generally, those areas where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans, or where humans are only visitors are declared wilderness area.  It also includes primitive areas and lands adjacent to them.

In order to classify an area as a wilderness area, it must have characteristics of wilderness  in the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior.  Further, the Secretary of the Interior must make a recommendation to the President regarding the suitability or non suitability of each area or island for preservation as a wilderness.  Before making such a recommendation to the President, the Secretary of the Interior must satisfy the notice and public hearing requirements.

The main aim behind protecting and managing the wilderness area is to preserve its natural conditions.  Accordingly, wilderness areas should not be used for purposes such as building of roads and structures, for using motor vehicles, and for landing of aircraft.

Congress has absolute rights over the forest lands of the U.S.  Generally the power of Congress with respect to forest on public land includes:

  • establishment and administration of national forests;
  • forest service;
  • reforestation; and
  • forest management.


However, the rights of Congress over forest land can be acquired only by congressional action.  While exercising the absolute powers, Congress can even establish public forest reservations on the public domain without the consent of the state, where the land is located. In all other cases Congress shall delegate such power to the President and other executive officers.

Apart from the congressional action to protect and manage the forest, the Secretary of Agriculture (Secretary) can circulate rules and regulations that are necessary to carry out the law relating to the lands of the National Forest System.  Other powers of the Secretary in relation to forests on public land include:

  • to make provisions for protecting the national forests against destruction by fire and depredations;
  • to regulate the occupancy and use of the national forests and forest reservations;
  • to issue permits for the implementation of a plan for a large-scale commercial-recreational development in a national forest and national park;
  • to control the commercial and recreational development of national forest lands; and
  • to promulgate regulations that prohibit the unauthorized grazing of livestock, use of motorized vehicles or aircraft in specified areas of the national forests, unauthorized cutting or removal of timber from the national forests, and indecent conduct in certain national forests areas.


Sometimes, the National Forest System includes non-federally owned land as well.  In such cases, the Secretary must provide the owners of such land the right to access their land so that they can have a reasonable use and enjoyment of such land.  Provided the owner must comply with the rules and regulations applicable to ingress and egress to or from the National Forest System.

[i] Animal Protection Institute, Inc. v. Hodel, 671 F. Supp. 695, 695-696 (D. Nev. 1987).

[ii] Fund for Animals, Inc. v. United States BLM, 460 F.3d 13 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

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