Denver — With the wilderness controversy heating up once again, separating myth from fact in this emotion-ridden debate becomes increasingly important. This proves particularly difficult because wilderness is as much symbol as it is substance, both to conservationists and to their adversaries in the mining, drilling, and timber industries. As a result, the debate tends to be shrill.
At the heart of this debate is the National Wilderness System, established by a 1964 act of Congress. Wilderness areas (WAs) are not parks. They are generally remote roadless areas set aside to be maintained in a totally natural state, ''untrammeled by man.''
This system currently consists of 25.2 million acres of designated wilderness in the continental United States plus 56.4 million acres in Alaska. In addition, 60.6 million acres have been proposed for wilderness or placed in a wilderness study classification.
The current flare-up in the wilderness controversy stems from two main factors:
* The 1964 Wilderness Act allowed exploration for oil, gas, and minerals in wilderness areas until the end of 1983. In intervening years, however, there has been little exploration and the wilderness system has been expanded substantially.
* US Interior Secretary James G. Watt has been spearheading the Reagan administration's effort to significantly increase industry access to public lands. Through administrative rather than legislative means, Mr. Watt is implementing what both he and his critics consider a radical change in federal land management policy - which bears directly on designation and management of wilderness areas.
As a result, the rhetoric is escalating and much of it is conflicting.
To many in the extractive industries, wilderness is simply the most extreme case in a general trend of competing priorities restricting development on public lands. ''Seventy percent of public lands are locked up - de facto or de jure,'' says Allen Overton Jr., an American Mining Congress lobbyist.
''In the lower 48 states there are some 375 million acres of public lands. Outside of the national parks only 20 million are wilderness areas and 9.25 million are wildlife refuges,'' rebuts Gaylord Nelson, president of the Wilderness Society.
To get their figure, the industry includes national and state parks, military reservations, Alaskan state and native lands which have not yet been selected, and proposed wilderness areas as ''locked up.'' Conservationists count wilderness study areas as open to exploration - even though they generally oppose issuing of exploration licenses on them - and prefer to ignore the millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska.
''Single purpose'' and ''multiple use'' are terms both sides use freely, but with entirely different meanings.
The industry refers to wilderness as single purpose while claiming mining, drilling, and timbering as ''true'' multiple use. Conservationists, on the other hand, point out that wilderness areas serve a number of purposes: recreation, wildlife protection, maintenance of natural ecosystems and genetic diversity, and protection of watersheds. Wilderness is far more multiple use than mining or drilling, they argue.
Timber interests maintain that properly managed forests can serve many of the same purposes as wilderness areas: recreation, wildlife, and watershed protection. The oil and gas industry points to the advances that make their operations less environmentally damaging. While admitting that their operations are disruptive, mining industry spokesmen stress the fact that only a very small amount surface area is involved: ''In the entire history of the US . . . only a fraction of 1 percent of the land has been disturbed and much of that has been reclaimed,'' says Mr. Overton.
In other words, when those involved say ''multiple use'' what they actually mean is that their preferred uses should be given first priority while all others should be considered secondary.
To those in the petroleum and mining industries wilderness areas are like itches that they cannot scratch. Spokesmen speak almost obsessively about the possibility that oil, gas, and vital mineral wealth may lurk within these generally remote areas.
Conservationists claim that most areas with mineral potential have been excluded from wilderness. Mining industry leaders, on the other hand, raise a number of particular cases where known or potential ore deposits (in most cases not of high enough grade to be developed currently) have been included in wilderness areas. They also criticize as insufficent the geological surveys that have been made.
The petroleum industry holds up the complex Overthrust Belt, which now is the hottest oil and gas area in the lower 48 states but was considered impossible to decipher only a few years ago, as an example of why access to these areas should not be restricted.
Yet, when questioned closely, mining industry representatives admit that, if they find something of value in a wilderness area, they would certainly want to develop it. This is a position the conservationists oppose as incompatible with the wilderness concept.
''Watt's argument that we're in a major oil, gas, and hard-rock (minerals) crisis and so must go into wilderness is a phony argument. Of the 118 million acres under oil and gas lease 98 percent has not yet been drilled. Also, there is some 42 million acres of private land leased but not yet drilled. That's enough to keep them busy for 25 years,'' says Wilderness Society's Nelson.
To combat the petroleum industry's contention that the wilderness areas may be invaluable, the Wilderness Society recently released a detailed study of the oil and gas potential of the wilderness areas. They conclude that designated wilderness may contain 1.4 percent of the total producible onshore oil and 1 percent of the natural gas in the nation.
Though unable to counter this with their own statistics, oil industry representatives are skeptical of these estimates. Alice Frell, public lands specialist for the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association called these estimates ''wishful statements,'' adding that without preliminary exploration she considers figures of this sort meaningless.
While protesting industry demands for an open-ended right to explore in wilderness areas, conservationists such as William K. Reilly of the Conservation Foundation defend an open-ended process of addition to the wilderness system and refuse to specify how much wilderness is enough.