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Monitoring Volcanic Activity in Wilderness Areas

Sarah Miranda


  • Addresses how the Wilderness Act created hurdles for public safety measures, including volcanic monitoring projects.
  • Discusses how Volcano monitoring is important as it analyzes the short-term changes of currently active volcanoes to predict when a crisis may happen.
  • Advocates for increased communication between scientists, federal agencies responsible for the implementation of the Act, and lawmakers to communicate issues and threats to the public.
Monitoring Volcanic Activity in Wilderness Areas
Rebecca L. Latson via Getty Images

The Wilderness Act (the Act) was a landmark conservation bill for outdoor recreationists and environmentalists alike. Congress passed the bill to preserve and protect wilderness areas from human development. These efforts largely ignored decades of prior management of wilderness areas by Indigenous tribes. Ever since the Act’s passage, these lands have been used by citizens for recreation.  Outdoor recreationists disseminate information about their use—ensuring that they remain protected and unimpaired. The Act has aided in many victories for conservationists, including prohibiting vans from transporting tourists in wilderness areas and banning a salmon enhancement project that would solely benefit fishers. But, it has also created hurdles for public safety measures, including volcanic monitoring projects. 

Under the Wilderness Act, after designation, the federal government cannot update preexisting volcanic monitoring equipment or place additional stations in the wilderness areas to detect seismic activity without finding an exception under the Act. These vital projects face many barriers under the Wilderness Act, including lengthy delays that put local communities and visitors at risk. Without adequate volcanic monitoring systems, scientists cannot accurately predict when a volcanic disaster may occur or provide adequate warnings to inform the public. These issues are of concern mostly in the Pacific Northwest because of the large number of active volcanoes that do not have adequate monitoring systems. A mechanism is needed to address these issues under the Wilderness Act so the risks of volcanic eruptions can be communicated and mitigated to avoid dire consequences.

Congress enacted the Wilderness Act of 1964 to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System to preserve public land as “wilderness areas” for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The “wilderness” designation applies to federal land that possesses primeval character and influence and is without permanent structures and improvements of human development. Four federal agencies implement the Wilderness Act: the U.S. National Park Service (“NPS”), the U.S. Forest Service (“USFS”), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”). The intent of the Act is to preserve federal land in its natural condition: motorized vehicles, infrastructure, roads, and commercial enterprises are prohibited in designated wilderness areas, subject to certain exceptions.

Section 4(d) of the Act lists the following exceptions for activities and uses allowed in wilderness areas: prior existing use of motorized boats and aircraft; measures in place to control disease, fire, and insects; mineral prospecting if conducted in a way that preserves the area; water projects; continuing livestock grazing; and certain recreational activities. This list is not exhaustive, existing private rights are also exempt from the Wilderness Act, unless explicitly noted otherwise. Another important exception, “minimum requirements” in Section 4(c), states that a prohibited action is allowed if it is “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area,” including measures required for emergencies involving public health and safety.

The minimum requirements exception allows for temporary roads, motorized vehicles, boats and equipment, aircraft landings, mechanical structures, and transportation if necessary for the administration of the wilderness area. The exception is difficult for federal agencies to apply because it requires subjective decision-making about what is "necessary" for administration. Federal agencies have construed “administration of the area” to mean that the proposed activity must further a "wilderness character" of the area, such as protecting resources or ensuring biodiversity, but this has not always been the case.

Many management decisions illustrate that the agencies apply this exception broadly and usually focus on how necessary the activity is and whether it will affect wilderness values. For example, in Denali National Park, NPS used helicopters to install a structure to upgrade the telecommunications network. The agency found that the project fell under the minimum requirements exception because it would help protect park resources, enhance the ability of the park to communicate in emergencies, and allow for efficient and effective administration of Denali. Similarly, the USFS found that using helicopters to monitor the population of reintroduced wolves in a wilderness area fell under the minimum requirements exception. The USFS reasoned that the use of the helicopters was allowed because the purpose was to ensure the long-term viability of the wolves and balance predators and prey, which enhances the wilderness character.

Volcano monitoring is important because it analyzes the short-term changes of currently active volcanoes to predict when a crisis may happen so relevant authorities can alert and prepare the public. Volcanic monitoring must be done before, during, and after volcanic eruptions for it to serve its intended function. Monitoring usually consists of one or more seismometers and other mechanical instruments, vehicles, or helicopters to install and maintain the equipment, and roads or other infrastructure to get to the equipment. The specific characteristics of a volcano determine the type of equipment used, the number of monitoring systems, and the monitoring method.

In Oregon and Washington alone, there are at least nine volcanoes with a “very high” or “high” threat of erupting. The Cascade Range is home to seven of America’s ten deadliest volcanoes, and of these seven, six are inadequately monitored partly because of the restrictions of the Wilderness Act. For scientists to conduct adequate monitoring on most Cascade volcanoes, the volcanoes need seismic networks of at least three seismometers. The seismometers must be buried and secured to stable platforms, and the area needs a helicopter pad for construction and maintenance of the devices. The monitoring stations must also be situated on the volcano for an adequate reading of activity. All the necessary measures for monitoring volcanoes violate the Wilderness Act, which specifically prohibits the construction of structures and transportation infrastructure in wilderness areas. 

The Wilderness Act does not address volcanic eruptions. However, prohibited activities that involve mitigating volcanic activity usually fall under the minimum requirements exception. The USFS has allowed for the creation of volcanic monitoring stations on Mt. Hood, because the activity meets the minimum requirements exception. Despite a desire to preserve a quality of wilderness character, the USFS found that the project was necessary to evaluate the risk posed to visitors and local communities from volcanic hazards. For similar reasons, the USFS has also found that seismic monitoring systems at Glacier Peak in Washington fit the minimum requirements exception because it is essential to improve and protect public use by ensuring safety during a volcanic episode.

Although federal agencies usually approve volcanic monitoring projects under the minimum requirements exception, the projects can take years to obtain approval because of delays and legal obstacles. In the case of Glacier Peak, the National Volcano Early Warning System advised that the volcano needed additional monitoring stations 13 years ago. However, the stations have yet to be established, even though the volcano is still considered a “very high threat.” Once projects get approved, they often face legal actions from fierce wilderness advocates who believe these projects violate the Wilderness Act. Legal actions have the possibility of delaying the project––or ending it altogether. Before the monitoring system is fully operational, there are additional requirements to meet like scoping, obtaining the equipment, and hiring contractors. This process can severely delay the construction of the monitoring systems, during times when an active volcano may erupt without notice.

Many active volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest need adequate monitoring systems. Time is of the essence. The Wilderness Act is essential to preserving public lands from commercial exploitation and unnecessary infrastructure. The Act, however, does not allow for the quick action needed to adequately protect visitors and communities from volcanic hazards related to an eruption. Although wilderness advocates voice concerns that allowing volcanic monitoring systems in wilderness areas will expand the exceptions of the Wilderness Act to other unforeseeable circumstances, scientists need to be able to use monitoring equipment in wilderness areas to communicate risks to the public. Increased communication between scientists, federal agencies responsible for the implementation of the Act, and lawmakers is needed to communicate issues and threats to the public. There should also be a mechanism that agencies can use to streamline approving monitoring projects under the Wilderness Act to minimize delays and other complications.