The Wilderness Act: Work Continues After 30 Years

THIRTY years ago this month Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, a measure unique in the history of conservation law.

At a time when the United States was growing rapidly in population and economic development, especially throughout the resource-rich American West, the notion that there should be places, as the act states, ``where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain'' demonstrated extraordinary vision.

The act initially set aside 9 million acres where roads, motorized equipment, dams, permanent structures, logging, and other development were forbidden. Southern swamps, Alaskan tundra, mountains, and high deserts were selected from federal forests, national parks, and wildlife refuges for wilderness designation.

Over the years, Congress has expanded official wilderness tenfold to some 96 million acres in 602 units. With final passage of the California Desert Protection Act (whose details are being worked out in the US House and Senate), the figure will pass 100 million acres.

It took eight years and more than 60 versions of the bill before the Wilderness Act passed both houses of Congress with near-unanimity. Critics said ``locking up'' natural resources would hurt regional and local economies.

The controversy over jobs versus preservation has intensified since then. But while the numbers seem huge, the wilderness system today includes only 15 percent of all federal lands and covers just 4 percent of the US land mass - more than half is in Alaska. The US Forest Service spends just 1 percent of its annual budget on managing wilderness areas - far, far less than it does helping the timber industry.

The idea and experience of wilderness touches the spiritual as well as the aesthetic. Such writers as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and (more recently) Wallace Stegner and Gary Snyder have explored landscape that is as much ethical as natural.

``Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,'' Stegner wrote, ``if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books ... ; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams, and push our paved roads through the last silence...''

Much has been done under the Wilderness Act, but much remains. Besides final passage of the 6.3 million-acre California Desert Protection Act, major wilderness bills for Idaho and Montana have languished for years. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deserves wilderness protection, as do such places as the Steens Mountains in southeast Oregon.

The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency that oversees 250 million acres in the West, needs to press ahead with its planning for wilderness protection. Wilderness now accounts for less than 1 percent of all BLM land, most of which is open to mining, grazing, and logging.

The federal Land and Water Conservation fund (created the year after the Wilderness Act) lacks adequate resources to acquire ``inholdings,'' or privately-owned parcels within wilderness. Stricter enforcement is needed to prevent commercial outfitters from setting up semi-permanent camps in wilderness areas.

The private conservation group, the Wilderness Society, points out that preserving wilderness areas is more than setting aside pristine areas for mankind's enjoyment. It helps to clean water and air. It provides habitat for many species, some of them (like grizzly bears) endangered, and thereby maintains biological diversity. It acts as a ``living laboratory'' for scientific research.

Natural resources typically are things extracted for human use. But as the 1964 legislation made clear, wilderness itself is ``an enduring resource.''

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