Don't rush to develop wilderness areas

In pushing for expanded economic usage in the 4l0 wildlife refuges throughout the United States, the Reagan administration may endanger the original purpose of such refuges. Namely, to preserve the nation's precious land and wildlife. Since 1903, more than 89 million acres of land has been set aside as protected sites - a national legacy that has been passed along to successive generations even as additional areas have been gradually added to the system.

Throughout the years multiple usage of such lands has been permitted, so long as the uses were compatible with the sites themselves. Thus, limited amounts of timber harvesting, fishing, trapping, oil exploration and development are allowed in some sites. But multiple usage has always been granted on a selective , case-by-case, basis. Hence the American public cannot help but be concerned about the recent policy memorandum of a top official of the US Fish and Wildlife Service that managers of refuge sites look for all possible ways to increase economic development on their sites. Potential new uses are to include ''grazing , haying, farming, timber harvest, trapping, oil and gas extraction, small hydroelectric generation, concessions, commercial hunting and fish guides, guided interpretive tours and commercial fishing.''

According to a spokesman for the Wildlife Service, the reason for such an all-out inquiry into potential new development of refuge areas is two-fold: to increase US energy output and to foster public enjoyment of such sites.

One cannot fault the desire to inventory such lands, to see where limited multiple usage might actually benefit the sites themselves, as in the case of limited trapping or timber cutting where these might help restore or maintain an ecological balance in the refuge areas. What is worrisome in the new policy, however, is the scope of it. It suggests not a case-by-case approval of economic exploitation but development for the sake of development.

America's wildlife refuges add up to a national treasure. Once a hydroelectric plant or tourist concession is placed on a reserve, it becomes difficult to restore the land to its former pristine state. It is up to Congress to ensure that wildlife areas continue to fulfill the special role they were given - sites of shelter and protection. America's natural heritage must not be sacrificed for quick economic gain.

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