National Scenic Areas are some of the most unique federally managed lands in the country. The designation arises when other federal lands statutes, like wilderness or national parks, don’t or simply can’t apply to specific situations. In fact, National Scenic Areas are often more what they aren’t (national park, wilderness area) than what they are.
In their relatively short history, National Scenic Areas have resulted from purpose-built legislation used to create management solutions for important public and private landscapes or to apply special management status to specific areas of publicly owned land. At times far-reaching and ambitious and other times limited and narrow, National Scenic Areas reflect a special situation rather than an overarching vision.
In the sprawling and well-known Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA), a matrix of public and private lands are managed cohesively to ensure that recreation, scenic values, private development, and other uses don’t negatively impact the entire area, while still providing economic opportunity for local communities and respecting private property rights.
The CRGNSA is co-managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Columbia River Gorge Commission in cooperation with more than 80 stakeholders, including state governments in Oregon and Washington. The landscape is divided into three different areas: Urban Areas, General Management Areas and Special Management Areas. Each has a different level of rules and regulations. Private land development is allowed, but heavily regulated, in General Management Areas, while very little development is allowed in the Special Management Areas. Urban Areas are exempt from the restrictions imposed on the other areas.
Prior to its designation in 1986, planned private land sub-developments threatened spectacular Multnomah Falls, which is on a national forest. Grassroots opposition resulted in the eventual creation of the CRGNSA. Today, the area is an incredible recreational destination that draws millions of visitors annually to its spectacular views, cascading waterfalls and wild forests.
The oldest National Scenic Area is Mono Basin National Scenic Area, which arose as part of an effort to restore and protect Mono Lake from water withdrawals and development. Beginning in the 1940s, the City of Los Angeles increased water diversions from tributary streams that fed Mono Lake to quench the city’s ever-growing thirst. Starved of fresh water, Mono Lake, the last remnant of an ancient inland sea, grew even smaller and completely crashed ecologically. Salinity sky-rocketed, making the water uninhabitable for the shrimp, flies and algae that formed the basis of the food web. The desiccated lakebed was whipped by winds and local air quality violated Clean Air Act standards. All this, just a few miles from the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.
The concept of a National Scenic Area, though ill-defined, had been around for years. Faced with growing public pressure for federal oversight and investment in Mono Lake, Congress crafted its own version and applied it to Mono Lake as a test case in 1984.
That designation and its subsequent management plan was an important piece of the decades-long battle to restore Mono Lake. Thanks to important legal victories that forced the return of water to the lake and large-scale federal, state and local restoration projects, the region has recovered in the decades since.
Both Mono Basin and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Areas were, and remain, ambitious efforts that have their critics. Especially in the case of the CRGNSA, the size, scope and scale of federal management proved divisive at the time. While the CRGNSA is generally considered a success, subsequent National Scenic Areas were smaller in scope and assigned new management status and recognition to lands entirely under federal ownership. Almost all of them are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and rose in connection with other management laws and regulations outlining regionally specific management priorities.
In Oklahoma’s Ouachita National Forest, the Beech Creek National Scenic Area and the Indians Nations National Wildlife and Scenic Area were created when the Winding Stair Mountain National Recreation Area and Wilderness Area Act was signed into law in 1988. In this case, Congress preserved some areas of the forest as official wilderness, the most protective public lands designation, but also used the National Scenic Area designation to preserve the botanical, recreational and scenic values of other areas of the forest that weren’t suitable for full-on wilderness designation.
In 1994 Congress designated the 7,580-acre Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area in Virginia’s George Washington-Jefferson National Forest as an alternative to wilderness designation. Then, 15 years later, two other George Washington-Jefferson-managed scenic areas, including the 6,455-acre Seng Mountain and the 5,500-acre Bear Creek National Scenic Areas, were created as part of a large public lands omnibus bill that President Obama signed in 2009. In each of these cases, local stakeholders, forest officials and others wanted to highlight and protect the natural amenities these areas provided, but they did not want, or were unable to, apply wilderness designation at the time.
The legacy of National Scenic Areas is mixed. The bold and ambitious Mono Basin and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Areas highlight the promise and perils of this land designation. Large landscapes rich in cultural, ecological and recreational resources can be preserved, but private property rights and development opportunities have remained contentious. More recently, the designation has made space for compromise on broader wilderness bills (themselves part of even bigger bills), but it has also given wilderness opponents a new tool to reduce overall wilderness designations.
But compromise isn’t always possible. A 2010 bill to designate part of the Coconino National Forest’s famous red rocks just outside of Sedona, Arizona, as a National Scenic Area failed to gain momentum.
They may not be national parks, or “capital ‘w’ wilderness,” or even that well understood, but National Scenic Areas are a flexible tool for protecting public lands when few other options prove viable. Given today’s contentious public lands debates, it’s likely we’ll see this “not a park, not a wilderness” designation again soon.
Many National Forest lands are free to access, though use fees apply in some areas. An America the Beautiful Pass can be purchased from most federal recreation sites for $80 and is good for national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, and Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities. Mono Lake is a participant in the Fee-Demo Program and charges a modest parking fee at the visitor center. Funds collected remain at the scenic area.
We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure that these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.
Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands: