Almost 20 years have passed since the United States became the first nation in the world to commit itself, by law, to the protection and preservation of the last remnants of its wilderness lands for their pristine splendor and unique natural values.
These lands, living parts of the American heritage, stand as memorials to our nation as it once was. They are moved only by the forces of nature, which created them, or by the intrusion of people, who have the capacity to destroy them. These lands were defined by Congress as areas ''where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.'' Thus, the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 was an expression of concern: we cannot produce more wilderness but we can save what little remains.
Today, there are more than 1,000 applications pending for oil and gas leasing and development in some 200 wilderness areas across the US, from Washington State to Florida, from New England to the Far West.
The Reagan administration and industry have teamed up to mount an unprecedented and massive assault that puts the little that remains of America's wildlands in danger of falling victim to the oil and gas rig.
On the auction block are relatively small portions of the fragile original beauty of America, the handiwork of nature over tens of thousands of years. For what? Lands that according to experts contain only a thimbleful of oil and gas when measured against other vast areas that are readily accessible for exploration and drilling.
Efforts to break into congressionally protected wilderness areas for oil and gas development are not new. Although existing law allows - but does not direct - wilderness leasing until 1984, all past administrations have had a policy not to issue leases because development is inherently incompatible with wilderness preservation. Then last year came Interior Secretary James Watt. Mr. Watt set into motion a series of events that have confounded his critics and even confused his allies.
First, he directed Interior Department attorneys to find ways to ''open wilderness areas'' to drilling and development -- a signal that was not lost on industry or federal agencies which must pass on lease applications. Within months of Watt's go-ahead, recommendations were drafted for leasing in wilderness areas, including the Washakie adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, and the Ventana near the spectacular Big Sur coast of California.
Stirred up by the flurry of activity toward wilderness leasing and the actual issuance of leases for the Capitan Wilderness in New Mexico (without public notice of environmental studies as required by law), the House Interior Committee last November urged a six-month moratorium on wilderness leasing. Watt subsequently extended the moratorium for the remainder of this year.
Then, in late February, Mr. Watt appeared on ''Meet the Press'' to praise the ''special'' virtues and the beauty of wilderness and to declare that these lands should be ''preserved in a natural state.'' He announced that he was sending Congress a bill to put wilderness off-limits to mining or drilling until the end of this century.
To many it sounded as though Watt was at last concerned about wilderness protection. Then the bill itself surfaced and it became apparent that Watt had engaged in a bit of television sleight of hand. What he held forth as wilderness protection was not that at all. The bill would give the president unprecedented authority to open wilderness to development anytime before the year 2000, would set unrealistic conditions for studying additions to the wilderness system, and protection that wilderness now has under the law would vanish in 18 years at the end of the century.
Hence, the threat against wilderness still looms large. Congressional hearings are being held on the Watt bill and on legislation that would give wilderness permanent protection from mineral development.
It is not necessary to go after energy in wilderness areas. Reliable studies show that only a negligible amount of the nation's oil and gas supplies are contained in wilderness. These areas constitute only 3.5 percent of the total land base of the US, including Alaska, and ought to be left as they are until other vast lands already in the hands of industry are explored and developed.
The greatest of America's untapped resources are the hundreds of millions of acres under the sea on the Outer Continental Shelf. Mr. Watt's own estimates are that 80 percent of all new oil potential is offshore. The question then is this: Should the nation's wilderness areas be preserved for their pristine natural values and the benefit of future generations, or should they be violated by energy and mineral development?
Secretary Watt has so steamed up the atmosphere that rational discussion of the issue is difficult. But it is not impossible. Facts involving development of wilderness areas can be weighed dispassionately to avert an impending conflict that could turn America's wilderness into an environmental wasteland.
Mr. Watt builds his case on the specious claim that energy and minerals ''desperately'' needed by the US are ''locked up'' in hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands.
The fact is, Fortune magazine concluded that 60 percent of all the federal onshore land base -- some 460 million acres in all -- is open for development. Of this, about 118 million acres - an area the size of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa , Vermont, and Massachusetts combined - are already under federal oil and gas leases, and 90 percent of that is yet to be explored or developed. In addition to federal oil and gas lease-holdings, many tens of millions of acres more in state and private lands are leased and yet to be explored.
Moreover, a recent study conducted by Leonard L. Fischman, an internationally respected natural resources economist, for the economic policy department of the Wilderness Society shows that wilderness areas contain only a fraction, comparatively, of the nation's onshore oil and gas supplies: ''Areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System contain only about 1 percent of the potentially producible oil and gas, and areas being considered for the wilderness system only about 3 percent.''
A most arresting finding of the Fischman study was that nonfederal onshore lands - private and state - contain 70 percent of the oil and 78 percent of the gas. This suggests that if there is a ''lock-up'' of energy-rich lands that need to be explored and developed, it is not on federal lands, and surely not in wilderness, but instead on lands to which industry has ready access, or controls already.
Thus, it seems reasonable to ask why the rush to lease relatively tiny and energy-poor wilderness areas. Priority should instead be placed on exploring and developing the many millions of acres that are now available, and let some future generation decide whether to allow development in America's last remaining wildlands.