WHILE environmentalists and economic interests wrangle over bits of landscape around the country, a movement is growing to preserve vast areas of wilderness so that species other than humans can recover and thrive.
A radical notion compared with typical conservation efforts, it's too idealistic for some mainstream environmental organizations, and loggers, miners, ranchers, and developers might see it as their worst nightmare if it ever came to fruition.
But the Wildlands Project, as it's called, is in line with such emerging public policies as ``ecosystem management'' and ``biodiversity protection.'' And a growing number of biologists and other scientists are publicly advocating the idea as well. There will be a hearing in Congress next week on one such proposal.
The essence here is a question naturalist John Muir wrote in his last journal: ``What is the human part in the mountain destiny?'' Or as David Clarke Burks, an environmental writer and teacher, put it at a recent University of Oregon conference, ``How can culture -
civilization - and wildlands coexist?''
``Wildlands'' are defined as public land where no roads exist. In their 1992 book ``The Big Outside,'' Dave Foreman and Howie Wolkie cataloged all such areas larger than 100,000 acres in the West and 50,000 acres in the East. They list 385 in all, ranging from the 3.3 million-acre ``River of No Return'' area in Idaho and Montana to the 50,000-acre Meachum Swamp in Vermont.
SUCH places go beyond federally designated wilderness, which some critics say is mostly the ``rocks and ice'' left over after resource-extraction industries got their pick. Foreman and Wolkie (co-founders of the radical environmental group Earth First!) say just 10 percent of the contiguous 48 states remain ``wild,'' an amount that is declining by 2 million acres a year - equivalent to the area of Yellowstone National Park.
Working to preserve such threatened species as grizzly bears, wolves, and migrating song birds in these areas is a relatively new breed of scientists known as ``conservation biologists.'' Michael Soule of the University of California has called the discipline a ``friendly, mission-oriented science that justifies the necessity for large areas of interconnected wildlands.''
Harvard University's Edward O. Wilson, an expert on species extinction, writes in his 1992 book ``The Diversity of Life'' that conservation biologists ``conduct their studies with the same sense of immediacy as doctors in an emergency ward.''
Accompanying this urgency is the belief that full solutions no doubt will take centuries, since so much undeveloped territory across North America in fact has been fragmented by human use.
``We view implementation as a long-term process,'' says David Johns, executive director of the Wildlands Project. ``Much of the politics deals with how many people there are [global population] and also levels of consumption. No conservation efforts are going to work without addressing these kinds of issues.''
The Wildlands Project is a foundation-funded board of 21 scientists and grass-roots representatives who provide scientific advice, mapping techniques, financing, and other support to environmental groups working on wilderness recovery plans for such areas as the Adirondack, Appalachian, and Rocky Mountains.
The project also is a way for conservationists to affirm values rather than simply fighting development that leads to habitat fragmentation and sometimes destruction.
``Clearly being on the defense is not enough,'' Mr. Johns says. ``We have to have something to say `yes' to.''
The components of a wilderness recovery network are core reserves, protected buffer zones where some human activity would be allowed, and corridors to connect the core reserves. Protected corridors are important for wide-ranging animals (like grizzlies) that tolerate little if any human contact.
The idea, Johns says, is that ``when you protect large animals you protect a lot more'' - that is, whole ecosystems that many other plant and animal species call home. Like the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, in other words, ``charismatic megafauna'' such as grizzlies and wolves are important indicator species for ecosystem well-being.
The most developed wildlands-protection proposal is embodied in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, the subject of a congressional hearing next week. This would set aside more than 16 million acres of wilderness by connecting five core reserves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon.
The bill has 57 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and has been endorsed by 49 noted wildlife specialists and former President Jimmy Carter. It also has caused what the Sierra Club's magazine recently called a ``family feud'' among environmentalists, renewing ``the old debate between incrementalists and visionaries.''
WHILE some environmentalists want to go all-out for this proposal, others are backing a bill sponsored by Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, which would set aside 1.6 million acres as wilderness. Because the Williams bill would also release several times this amount of roadless area to logging, mining, grazing, and other development, it is seen as having a much better chance of passage after 16 years of congressional debate over Montana wilderness.
While designers and supporters of vast wildlands protection face an uphill battle, the thinking behind their efforts is gaining wider acceptance.
``The day when I could sort of designate the `back 40' as a national park, put a fence around it, and say that will take care of our obligation to nature, is simply gone,'' Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told a National Academy of Sciences forum last week. ``The empty spaces have shrunk down; the habitat surface of the earth is now fragmented to the point that there isn't any back 40 left.''
Said Babbitt: ``We are ultimately driven then to the question of attempting to see it whole, of asking, can we find within the ecosystems of the planet some kind of equilibrium?'' Which is the same thing that old mountaineer John Muir was asking.