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Wilderness Act

This page offers excerpts from a court case to illustrate the scope and an application of the Wilderness Act.

Excerpts from


Filed December 30, 2003
Amended March 16, 2004

GOULD, Circuit Judge:
We consider an action brought by the Wilderness Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment ("Plaintiffs") challenging a decision by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS"), to grant a permit for a sockeye salmon enhancement project ("Enhancement Project") that annually introduces about six million hatchery-reared salmon fry into Tustumena Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge ("Kenai Refuge") and the Kenai Wilderness. Plaintiffs assert that the USFWS permit for the Enhancement Project violated the Wilderness Act ... by offending its mandate to preserve the "natural conditions" that are a part of the "wilderness character" of the Kenai Wilderness, ... and by sanctioning an impermissible "commercial enterprise" within a designated wilderness area ... The district court denied Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment ... We conclude that the district court erred in finding that the Enhancement Project is not a "commercial enterprise" that Congress prohibited within the designated wilderness. We reverse and remand ...



The area now known as the Kenai Refuge has been recognized as protected wilderness by the federal government for more than sixty years. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order designating about two million acres of land on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, including Tustumena Lake, as the Kenai National Moose Range for the purpose of "protecting the natural breeding and feeding range of the giant Kenai moose."

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System with the explicit statutory purpose "to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition." Congress thereby expressed support for the principle that wilderness has value to society that requires conservation and preservation. As President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said upon signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964, "[i]f future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

The Wilderness Act required the Secretary of the Interior to make recommendations to the President as to the suitability of existing national parks, refuges, and game ranges for preservation as wilderness. Upon recommendation of the President, Congress was empowered to designate existing national park, wildlife refuge, and game range lands as wilderness.

In 1980, Congress ... expanded the Kenai National Moose Range by nearly a quarter-million acres, renamed it the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and further set aside 1.35 million acres of the Refuge, including Tustumena Lake, as the Kenai Wilderness, a designated wilderness pursuant to Congress's authority to protect lands under the Wilderness Act.


Tustumena Lake lies near the western edge of the Kenai Refuge and within the Kenai Wilderness. Tustumena Lake is the largest freshwater lake located within the Kenai Refuge and is the fifth largest freshwater lake in the State of Alaska. The lake's outlet is the Kasilof River, which drains into the Cook Inlet, a tidal estuary that flows into the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.

As a result of its remote location, the ecosystem around and within Tustumena Lake is in a natural state. This ecosystem supports several species of anadromous fish, including sockeye salmon, which spawn within the Kasilof River watershed. A commercial fishing fleet, operating outside the boundaries of the Kenai Refuge, intercepts and harvests these sockeye salmon during their annual run from the Gulf of Alaska back to the Kasilof River, Tustumena Lake, and other spawning streams.

The antecedents of the present Enhancement Project date back to 1974, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game ("ADF&G") first conducted a sockeye salmon egg collection at Tustumena Lake as part of a research project designed to test the ability of the ecosystem to produce fish. The eggs were incubated at the Crooked Creek Hatchery, outside of the Kenai Refuge, and the resulting fry were stocked outside of the Kenai Refuge in the spring of 1975. In 1976, fry were first released into Tustumena Lake, and since have been released into Tustumena Lake in all but two subsequent years ... Since 1987, the number of fry released annually into the lake has been slightly greater than 6 million.

Before 1980, ADF&G operated the Enhancement Project without a special use permit, and ADF&G did not seek permits for the operation of the project. In 1980, following [the dsignation as a wilderness area], the USFWS's Refuge Manager for the Kenai Refuge notified ADF&G that special use permits would be required for all ongoing projects within the Refuge.


Also in August 1997, the Kenai Refuge Manager issued a Wilderness Act Consistency Review, addressing legal concerns regarding whether the Enhancement Project was consistent with the Wilderness Act's mandate to preserve wilderness in its natural condition and whether the project was a prohibited commercial enterprise. Referring to a legal opinion prepared by the United States Department of Interior's Regional Solicitor's Office, which concluded that the Enhancement Project "does not have to contribute to achieving Refuge purposes but it may not significantly conflict with them," the Kenai Refuge Manager, in the Consistency Review, dismissed concerns that the project altered natural conditions and was a commercial enterprise. The Kenai Refuge Manager concluded that the Enhancement Project was consistent with the Wilderness Act, which he viewed as a legislative compromise not reflecting absolute preservationist values. The Refuge Manager also suggested that, because the State of Alaska had previously administered the project, criticism that the Enhancement Project was a commercial enterprise raised "a distinction without a difference." In August 1997, the Refuge Manager also released a Compatibility Determination, which concluded that the Enhancement Project "cannot . . . be considered as supporting refuge purposes, but neither can it be found incompatible with them."

After issuance of these documents, the USFWS on August 8, 1997, issued a Special Use Permit ... for the Enhancement Project. Under the terms of this permit, each summer the CIAA establishes a temporary camp within the Kenai Wilderness at the mouth of Bear Creek, which flows into Tustumena Lake, and catches about 10,000 returning sockeye salmon, which yield about 10 million eggs. These eggs are transported to a hatchery outside the Kenai Wilderness. The following spring about six million salmon fry produced by the eggs were stocked and returned tot he wilderness in Bear Creek.



[1] ... we assess Plaintiffs' contention that the Enhancement Project offends the Wilderness Act. Most pertinent to our analysis is the Wilderness Act's prohibition of commercial enterprise within designated wilderness. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act states that, subject to exceptions not relevant here, "there shall be no commercial enterprise . . . within any wilderness area." The Wilderness Act does not define the terms "commercial enterprise" or "within." The district court considered these terms ambiguous and concluded that they do not bar the Enhancement Project.

[2] Because no statutory or regulatory provision expressly defines the meaning of the term "commercial enterprise" as used in the Wilderness Act, we first consider the common sense meaning of the statute's words to determine whether it is ambiguous. Webster's defines "enterprise" to mean "a project or undertaking." . Webster's defines "commercial" as "occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce; of or relating to commerce." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language provides a strikingly similar definition, viewing "commercial" as meaning "1.a. of or relating to commerce, b. engaged in commerce, c. involved in work that is intended for the mass market." Black's Law Dictionary adds that "commercial" may be defined as "relates to or is connected with trade and traffic or commerce in general; is occupied with business or commerce." These definitions suggest that a commercial enterprise is a project or undertaking of or relating to commerce.

[3] We also consider the purposes of the Wilderness Act. The Act's declaration of policy states as a goal the "preservation and protection" of wilderness lands "in their natural condition," so as to "leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, [and] the preservation of their wilderness character." The Wilderness Act further defines "wilderness," in part, as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man." These statutory declarations show a mandate of preservation for wilderness and the essential need to keep commerce out of it. Whatever else may be said about the positive aims of the Enhancement Project, it was not designed to advance the purposes of the Wilderness Act. The Enhancement Project to a degree places the goals and activities of commercial enterprise in the protected wilderness. The Enhancement Project is literally a project relating to commerce.

The structure of the relevant provisions of the Wilderness Act may also be considered. The Wilderness Act's opening section first sets forth the Act's broad mandate to protect the forests, waters and creatures of the wilderness in their natural, untrammeled state. Section 1133, devoted to the use of wilderness areas, contains a subsection entitled "[p]rohibition provisions." Among these provisions is a broad prohibition on the operation of all commercial enterprise within a designated wilderness, except as "specifically provided for in this Act." The following subsection of the Act enumerates "special provisions," including exceptions to this prohibition. This statutory structure, with prohibitions including an express bar on commercial enterprise within wilderness, limited by specific and express exceptions, shows a clear congressional intent generally to enforce the prohibition against "commercial enterprise" when the specified exceptions are not present. There is no exception given for commercial enterprise in wilderness when it has benign purpose and minimally intrusive impact.

[4] The language, purpose and structure of the Wilderness Act support the conclusion that Congress spoke clearly to preclude commercial enterprise in the designated wilderness, regardless of the form of commercial activity, and regardless of whether it is aimed at assisting the economy with minimal intrusion on wilderness values.



The district court grounded its decision in part on an assessment that the impact on wilderness of millions of fry unseen beneath the waters of Bear Creek and Tustumena Lake was not terribly intrusive on wilderness values and that the project would hardly be noticed by those visiting the wilderness. The district court also was impressed that the CIAA was a nonprofit entity, that the State of Alaska heavily regulated the Enhancement Project, and that commercial effects of the project generally occurred years after the collection of salmon eggs and later release of the fry and were realized by commercial fishermen who sought their catch outside the wilderness bounds.

We thus deal with an activity with a benign aim to enhance the catch of fishermen, with little visible detriment to wilderness, under the cooperative banner of a non-profit trade association and state regulators ...

Conversely, the challenged activities do not appear to be aimed at furthering the goals of the Wilderness Act. The project is not aimed at preserving a threatened salmon run. Looked at most favorably, for the proponents of the fishstocking project, it might be concluded that the project only negligibly alters the wild character of Tustumena Lake and is not incompatible with refuge values, though those issues are disputed. And it might also be considered that, to the extent the project is a servant of commerce, it may pose a threat to the wild, even if it operates under the eye of state and federal regulators.


[7] In light of Congress's language and manifest intent, we conclude that the most sensible rule of decision to resolve whether an activity within designated wilderness bounds should be characterized as a "commercial enterprise" turns on an assessment of the purpose and effect of the activity ...

[9] The primary purpose of the Enhancement Project is to advance commercial interests of Cook Inlet fishermen by swelling the salmon runs from which they will eventually make their catch. The Enhancement Project is operated by an organization primarily funded by a voluntary self-imposed tax instituted by the Cook Inlet fishing industry on the value of its salmon catch. In the words of the Kenai Refuge Manager, in a memorandum to the Department of Interior's Regional Solicitor:

The primary purpose of the enhancement activity is to supplement sockeye catches for East Side Cook Inlet set-net commercial fishermen, and for lower Cook Inlet enhancement projects.

A secondary purpose is use of the excess eggs taken from Tustumena in a CIAA cost recovery project to help finance the Tustumena lake and lower Cook Inlet sockeye salmon enhancement projects.

The activity is no longer experimental in nature, nor is restoration of fish stocks an objective. It is strictly an enhancement effort to increase the number of sockeye salmon available to the commercial fishery.

The Fishery Management Plan for the Kenai Refuge characterizes the purpose of the Enhancement Project as "commercial enhancement of sockeye salmon populations in .. Tustumena lake[ ]." This primary purpose is not contradicted by evidence that the Enhancement Project serves other secondary noncommercial purposes, including providing a general benefit to the fishery commonly used by commercial and recreational fishermen alike. Incidental purposes do not contradict that the Enhancement Project's principal aim is stock enhancement for the commercial fishing industry.

[10] The primary effect of the Enhancement Project is to aid commercial enterprise of fishermen ...

[11] ... In light of the clear statutory mandate, the Wilderness Act requires that the lands and waters duly designated as wilderness must be left untouched, untrammeled, and unaltered by commerce. By contrast, the Enhancement Project is a commercial enterprise within the boundaries of a designated wilderness and violates the Wilderness Act.


[13] Plaintiffs were entitled to prevail on their motion for summary judgment establishing that the USFWS's permit for the commercial enhancement program violated the Wilderness Act...

REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

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