A century and a half ago, Henry David Thoreau went to a quiet place near a Massachusetts pond to consider the value of nature. He later wrote: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Since then, the concept of wilderness in America's open spaces has been transformed. Hikers now ply the farthest reaches of national parks, accompanied by the ring of cell phones. Helicopter tours whirr over far-off forests, and smog has encroached on stunning landscapes.
Within the next month, the Clinton administration plans to address these issues by asking Congress to set aside 5 million acres of national park land as wilderness - places where new development is prohibited.
If successful, the move would be perhaps the most significant change in national park land usage for a generation - one that the administration is eager to leave as a legacy. But Congress has repeatedly turned down proposals to give national park land in the Lower 48 states wilderness designation since Lyndon Johnson's presidency 35 years ago. And with many Republican congressmen - and some park superintendents - wary of restrictive measures on park management, the battle is not expected to be much easier this time around.
Interest in the concept of wilderness has been piqued this summer by three events: the 35th anniversary of the Wilderness Act signed by Johnson, the 75th birthday of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico (the oldest national forest wilderness in the US), and Mr. Clinton's new plan.
During his 1999 State of the Union address, Clinton announced a $1 billion Lands Legacy initiative designed to help protect some of the wildest terrain remaining on the American landscape, to create new urban parks, and to safeguard "green space" that serves as a buffer against urban sprawl.
More than 100 million acres of public land are currently wilderness, and 43.1 million acres of that total are spread across 44 national parks. But the vast majority of those national park acres are in Alaska, where Congress, at President Carter's urging, agreed to give tens of millions of acres wilderness status. Clinton's plan will call for extending wilderness to parts of 17 national parks - all in the Lower 48.
More than 90 percent of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres would receive formal wilderness designation. This wouldn't mean rolling back the amenities that already exist, supporters of the plan note. Rather, it would protect the rest of the park from new roads or building projects.
Americans "don't realize that, if anything, national parks are more vulnerable than ever," says Mark Peterson, Rocky Mountain regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. "The true sense of wildness is in danger of being lost."
Pressure on parks
Clearly, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore hope to win praise from the public - which is seen as supportive of anything to protect national parks. But the plan is also based on the recognition that quiet places like those identified by Thoreau are fast disappearing. Visits at US parks are inching toward 300 million a year, and conservationists say something must be done.
"Not only do machines shatter our solitude, but they rob us of our natural sounds," says Robert Ekey, the northern Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society. "These are rare commodities in today's world. That's why we need wilderness."
He cites examples:
*In Yellowstone, snowmobiles create pollution problems as well as noise that can be heard miles away.
*At Great Smoky Mountains in the southern Appalachians, haze caused by cars and smokestacks has affected sensitive plants and views.
*At Zion in Utah, there is a plan to redivert water from a stream inside a proposed wilderness for irrigation purposes.
Clinton administration officials say final details of the national park wilderness plan will be unveiled sometime between now and July 4, but concern is growing that the initiative could touch off partisan fireworks before Independence Day.
Unresolved is what wilderness status would mean for things such as regulating or prohibiting commercial airplane tours over parks, managing forest fires, using chain saws to clear hiking trails, and improving air-quality problems caused by adjacent cities. It would even extend to decisions on whether motorized wheel chairs, cellular phones, and portable computers are allowed in the back country.
Some tourism promoters in national park gateway communities fiercely oppose more wilderness. The administration's emphasis is misplaced, says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, which represents organizations such as off-road vehicle clubs.
Rather than channeling limited management resources into the back country, where hikers and horseback riders go, he says, the park service should better serve the masses near the roadsides. Hiking trails, visitors' centers, and parking lots are in greater need of care.
Other critics are more vocal. The Clinton administration is trying to "lock the public out" of some national park areas, says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battleground, Wash.
"Not everyone wants to pretend they're Lewis and Clark in the year 1806," he says. "Wilderness is available to only a narrow segment of the population. What about older folks and people with disabilities?"
Moreover, wilderness will actually cause greater degradation of parks by concentrating more people in smaller areas easily accessible to cars, Mr. Cushman adds.
Those will only be concerns, however, if the measure passes Congress. Mr. Peterson and others within the conservation movement say the Republican leadership may stall passage of the bill unless a number of their projects can be attached to it as riders.
In any case, many park managers are trying to take steps to improve their care of the parks - even if the wilderness proposal never passes. The park service has been criticized in recent years for being more concerned with turning national parks into playgrounds - and less concerned about preserving them.
In a response to these concerns, park service director Robert Stanton ordered the agency to prepare a new wilderness manual, now in draft form.
Still, conservationists hope these efforts will be buttressed by the wilderness plan. "What we're talking about is the slow, steady erosion of national parks," Peterson says. "The changes may be imperceptible to current park visitors, but over the span of a single human generation, the aesthetic losses can be substantial."