When it comes to the environment, America's decisions often seem driven by myths and emotions. Essential facts and vital components of the ''public interest'' are often forgotten. The continuing debate over wilderness is a good example.
Many argue for expanding the nation's wilderness system and placing no limitation on either the total acreage or the number of times an area can be studied for wilderness. The ongoing process developed to serve these ends graphically illustrates the power of fear and mythology. Several myths particularly merit attention.
Myth No. 1. The choice is between wilderness preservation and development. Wilderness is the only way to protect natural values, and failure to designate an area as wilderness leaves it open to destructive development, forever foreclosing the wilderness option.
Perhaps prior to the environmental era there was some merit to the claim that wilderness designation alone could safeguard natural values. Passage of numerous state and national air, water, land use and wildlife laws since 1969, however, voids this argument.
A host of land use classifications today strictly regulates development. Human activities may be restricted to certain seasons of the year; especially sensitive areas can be closed all together; and even the most carefully designed proposal must first be reviewed by the public and various agencies.
The very fact that numerous areas are suitable today for wilderness underscores how well these laws work. It is ironic that the biggest push for wilderness has come when it is least needed. The national wilderness system now stands at 228 million acres - an area bigger than California, Nevada, and Utah combined.
Myth No. 2. Once affected in any way by development, an area is forever unsuitable for wilderness. Development of even a few acres in a 40,000-acre wilderness study area (WSA) renders the entire area unsuitable.
The Cumberland Island Wilderness area is blanketed with roads and inhabited homes. In one case, a paved road was included in a wilderness area; the Forest Service simply tore it up, reseeded the area, and let nature take over. Throughout the West, numerous areas with old mines, clear cuts, roads, homesteads, and wheat fields have been designated as wilderness, on the ground that nature had reclaimed the land or would soon do so.
Regardless of what some might say, signs of man obviously do not destroy wilderness suitability. The area merely has to look natural, now or in the near future, and modern reclamation methods can work wonders. Moreover, areas released from wilderness study will be managed under our general land and environmental laws for hiking, scientific study, and a wide range of uses prohibited in wilderness.
Myth No. 3. We can always terminate an area's wilderness status and open it to development ''if truly compelling reasons'' arise.
Behind this argument is the ''kitchen faucet theory of resource development'' - that we can find and develop energy and resources instantaneously, whenever the need arises. Unfortunately, it just isn't so.
Contrary to some claims, as studies by the US Geological survey and others show, many wilderness areas and WSAs may have significant energy and mineral deposits. It takes years to find and produce them (13 years from leasing to production at Prudhoe Bay, our biggest oil field).
The wilderness designation process has become a one-way street. Areas get reviewed for wilderness every 10 years until they get designated. However, once in wilderness, it will almost literally take a major war or other calamity to get them out - and the environmental destruction that will accompany the mad rush to explore and develop under those circumstances can easily be imagined.
Bertrand Russell once wrote, ''Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or think sanely under the influence of a great fear.'' Wilderness advocates have fostered a gnawing fear in many of us: a fear that we have only a few natural areas left; that a ''wilderness experience'' can be enjoyed only in designated wilderness areas; and that every remaining area will be developed or paved over if it is not designated wilderness at once.
It is time we examined these myths carefully, before we make decisions that are neither necessary nor in our long-term best interest. We cannot afford to close off the vast majority of our natural resource options, out of a mistaken belief that only by doing so can we preserve wilderness values and options.