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Wilderness at 25 - a look to the future.

George Reiger of Locustville, Virginia, is a nationally known conservation writer and lecturer.

On the eve of the Wilderness Act's silver anniversary, questions surrounding wildland designations and definitions still cloud the horizon. Are there any silver linin ? By GEORGE REIGER

Twenty-five years ago this fall, the Wilderness Act became law. Seven years after Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced the first wilderness bill, and some 66 revisions later, Congress sent to the White House a document ambiguous enough to reassure an special interests that there was nothing in it to threaten them.

More substantial than, say, a Congressional resolution honoring the nation's poultry growers, the Wilderness Act was designed to cost the American taxpayer nothing. The National Wilderness Preservation System NWPS) was to be created from properties already owned and administered by the federal government.

Some proponents of the original bill had suggested creating a separate wilderness agency to administer the law and all properties growing from it. But the grayer heads in both political parties argued that such a Wilderness Service" would set a precedent for lobbyists on behalf of distinct departments for such "overly specialized" interests as the elderly, veterans, and environmental protection.

Since NWPS was designed on the cheap, it had little honor among bureaucrats for whom respect is based on career potential and substantive funding. The President's War on Poverty or the real war in Southeast Asia-now, those were things a GS-whatever could get his teeth into ! Although consultants were quickly onto the Wilderness Act with plans and proposals, bureaucrats at the Interior and Agriculture departments were more immediately concerned with the President's wife's beautification program than with designating potential Wilderness Areas in remote corners of the country where few, if any, registered voters resided.

On paper the Act signaled a dramatic change in national resource policy. The instant the ink was dry, some 9.1 million acres of National Forest were transferred into the newly created Wilderness System. These forests had already been classified as "canoe," "wild," or "wilderness" lands by the Forest Service.

Their new NWPS designation was supposed to provide them with Congressional as well as administrative protection, but Congress is far more inconsistent in its behavior than any bureaucracies run by the stolid Civil Service.

The real difference made by the Wilderness Act was that management would no longer be applied in officially designated Wilderness Areas. Management-with its associations of "manmade," "manipulation," and, most especially, commercial exploitation-was a no-no in such wild realms. Anti-management policy included a prohibition on any kind of motorized vehicles in or low over Wilderness Areas.

From the beginning, there were questions about whether scientists who wanted to study, or federal wardens who wanted to protect, Wilderness Area grizzly bears, for example, would be held to the same tough motor taboo that everyone else had to abide by.

Indeed, the non-motorized-access aspect of the law, even more than the notion that certain wild and scenic areas should be protected from commercial exploitation, was the curb over which so many earlier bills had stumbled on their way to enactment. The bill that eventually became law did so only because it excluded huge tracts of America from wilderness consideration.

None of the 250 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for example, were eligible for Wilderness status. The representatives of lease-holding ranchers and miners, who think these lands are theirs, refused to allow BLM properties to enter the Wilderness equation.

On the whole, however, business interests were in favor of protecting pristine ecosystems because, by definition, such ecosystems don't exist where loggers, miners, and oilmen are at work. Since there seemed to be more than enough timber, ore, and oil to maintain employment and profits through the 1960s-by which time the executives who reviewed and approved the proposed Wilderness Act would have made their nesteggs and retiredthe law seemed an innocuous measure to please tree-huggers without costing industry anything.

All proposed Wilderness Areas were to be surveyed to make absolutely certain they were devoid of salable resources. Grizzlies, eagles, and caribou didn't matter, because they're not marketable-or are so remote from major highways and rail lines as to be outside the profit pale. Only economically worthless landscapes would be designated as Wilderness with a capital "W".

Some businessmen in the 1960s looked beyond the decade and expressed concern that, unlikely as it seemed at the time, the United States might one day run low on certain strategic materials"-a phrase that covered everything from oil to cedar shingles-and therefore would need to tap Wilderness Areas to satisfy demand.

The smartest of these businessmen knew they'd accomplish nothing by opposing the popular will at the time. They understood that Americans like to think of nature as a wild and unfettered spirit. (Indeed, many businessmen think of it in those terms as well.) However, by the early 1960s, much of wild America had become largely a traumatized patient from which industry siphoned blood (oil and water) and pulled muscle fiber (timber and ore) as markets demanded.

The Wilderness Act seemed a substantial law to its supporters, but the smartest of its opponents knew that, like any law, it could be modified when the need arose. Since only National Forest lands were to be considered for status when the Wilderness Act was created, and since fewer Americans had relatively more bonafide wilderness back then, industry accepted the new law.

But when the time came to challenge that law, as happened increasingly in the 1980s, the will of the American people-even more than the will of the corporations-made those challenges possible. The best publicized and perhaps the most cynical example of real-economik as applied to the Wilderness System has been the oil industry's efforts to get the Wilderness designation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) altered to allow oil drilling there.

Irony and cynicism enter the equation because the oil industry originally supported ANWR'S Wilderness status as a consolation prize for conservationists who'd lost the fight to prevent the drilling at Prudhoe Bay and the building of the pipeline to Valdez.

Even though oil experts in the early 1970s conceded that the Prudhoe Bay field wouldn't last more than about two decades, and that the next most convenient field lay just to the east in ANWR, they allowed that range to be designated as Wilderness, also knowing full well that when ANWR "needed to be drilled," that "need" could be brought home to every American with gasoline price hikes.

An effort to put pressure on motorists, and ultimately Congress, ran aground last spring on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. For the time being at least, the oil companies are hunkered down in bunkers waiting for the media bombardment to end.

The more sage among them know, however, that most Americans will have forgotten all about the oil spill next summer when the ANWR drilling campaign can be put back on track with new price rises on the eve of the next vacation driving season.

Since the word wilderness means so many different things to so many different people, the Act has had problems with interpretation from the beginning. Animal protectionists, for example, were overjoyed to think that one day NWPS would put millions of acres off-limits to hunters, because the ordinary hunter never hunts more than a mile or two from a road.

At the same time, traditional big-game hunters were delighted that the federal government was finally setting aside sizable tracts of wild America for what would amount to their exclusive use. No faddish backpacking industry existed 25 years ago, and about the only people found in the late summer or fall in the more remote corners of western public lands were hunters who came on horseback to pursue elk, bear, and mountain sheep.

Especially appealing to such traditional sportsmen was the idea that their less traditional colleagues those more familiar with th smoke of off-road vehicles than of campfires-would be excluded from millions of acres of superior big-game range. Indeed, protypical sportsmen like George Bird Grinnell, Charles Sheldon, and Bob Marshall had set the standard for wilderness hunting in which the effort it takes to reach the game and the beauty of the beasts themselves are as important as the trophy quality of the sport.

The Wilderness Act guarantees a hunter's right of access so long as he "does not remain." Yet 25 years after the Act became law, anti-hunters argue that big-game hunting is more exploitive of wildlife than logging or mining and an anachronism in the context of genuine wilderness.

Definitions of wilderness abound.

Just how genuine some officially designated Wilderness Areas are is the source of another debate. Fifteen years ago, I led a rafting party down the Colorado River. As we were launching our inflatable boats below Glen Canyon Dam, a graduate student from Arizona State University asked each of us several questions concerning our concept of wilderness. His last question was whether we felt a float trip on an increasingly overcrowded Colorado constituted a "wilderness experience."

The young mostly said "maybe" or no"; the elderly all said "yes. " One sprightly blue-haired lady tapped the graduate student's clipboard and said, "Honey, anywhere I can't take my car is a wilderness!"

Definitions of wilderness depend not only on a person's age but also on what part of the country he comes from-or, more accurately, what part of the country an influential Congressman comes from.

Since the NWPS was detaxpayer nothing, redefining an existing park or wildlife refuge as Wilderness gives local voters the impression that their representative or senator is environmentally sensitive without him or her actually having to do anything substantive (like spend money) on behalf of conservation.

That's why today only six states-connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island-are either too small or too settled by farms not to have at least one officially designated Wilderness Area.

Some Wilderness Areas found in the eastern United States are pretty far-fetched by western standards. For example, there is plenty of appropriate wilderness in New York State in desperate need of protection-roughly 60 percent of properties within the Adirondack State Park are privately owned and under profound development pressure.

But because the Wilderness Act provides no funding, and because even the supermen and women who wheel and deal on behalf of the Nature Conservancy are stretched to their limit, New York politicians turned what many people regard as little more than a hotbed of gay rights' activism Fire Island National Seashore) into that state's only Wilderness Area. Some critics believe that designating a heavily used and abundantly littered beach park as Wilderness undermines the concept and status of more genuine Wilderness Areas elsewhere in the nation.

Fire Island not only has a plethora of private homes, it has an annual debate over the deer-hunting season. The argument is less about the need to reduce the herd in order to save the island's dwindling maritime forest than about reducing animal vectors for the tick-borne Lyme disease affecting increasing numbers of visitors from nearby New York City.

Other critics of the way the Wilderness System has evolved see the problem as a matter of jurisdiction. Had the Act been serviced with remote lands exclusively out of the National Forest System, as recommended, we wouldn't today be plagued by so many different definitions of wilderness.

The Park Service, such critics feel, is an especially poor agency to involve in wilderness protection since Park Service policy toward people is akin to that of undergraduates seeking to make the Guiness Book of Records by cramming themselves into a telephone booth! The quality of a National Park or National Seashore visit is increasingly overshadowed by statistics concerning the number of visitor-days each park or monument receives.

The parks seem to be in competition with one another for visitors- possibly because the more they have, the more financial support they receive to make sure those visitors are provided with all the comforts of home. By the time concessions are made for motorized access and even parking areas, few wilderness values may be left.

Islands are even more vulnerable to overuse than seashores, which are normally invaded by people from only one side and rarely at more than two or three access points. Two of the tiniest units in the Wilderness System are the 36acre Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and the 77-acre West Sister Island in Ohio-that state's only Wilderness Area.

At first thought, islands would seem to be perfect entities for Wilderness status because they're surrounded and seemingly protected by water. But water provides pleasure boaters with access to all sides of an island. When all island wilderness is less than 100 acres in area, wilderness" is the very opposite of what that island may become on a calm and sunny day.

West Sister Island is 20 miles from downtown Toledo. What of official Wilderness Areas even closer to more substantial human populations- Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, for example, or Monomoy on Cape Cod? These coastal properties lost some of their wild flavor the moment they were designated Wilderness because the very concept attracts people, who are horrified to find so many of their kind already there ! With money and politics the factors determining whether and where Wilderness Areas are created, some big states like Nevada, with relatively few voters, have no more Wilderness Areas than smaller but more densely settled states like Massachusetts and Indiana.

Nevada has a higher proportion of federal land than any other state, but only one Wilderness Area tucked into its northeast corner; Jarbidge in the Humboldt National Forest.

As a result, people elsewhere can't imagine that very much of Nevada is worth preserving as Wilderness. And since most of Nevada is evidently not worth preserving, and since we, the people, own so much of it, why not make Nevada the nation's toxic-waste and nuclear dump site? This, in fact, is happening.

Sixty-nine percent of Nevada is administered by BLM. Of these 47.8 million acres, at least four million hive prime potential for Wilderness designation. But since BLM properties were purposely excluded from consideration in the original Wilderness Act, only since 1967-with the creation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act-was BLM required to inventory its holdings and make Wilderness recommendations.

Reagan's Interior Secretary James G. Watt, however, put this requirement on the back-burner, where it simmers to the present day. (See FOCUS section beginning on page 36 for more about BLM Wildernesses.)

The Wilderness Act's silver anniversary was celebrated with a special issue of Wilderness, the Wilderness Society's quarterly publication. That issue constitutes a blueprint for how the Wilderness System should evolve in the future. It's a reasonable document, but may be an unrealistic one.

When we reflect that the Wilderness Act was conceived in science with an appreciation of human need, but enacted through compromise with an acceptance of human greed, there is little prospect of preserving more parcels of genuine wilderness unless the Bush Administration makes a determined effort to reverse the anti-wilderness policies of its predecessor.

If the past 25 years have taught us anything, it's that we cannot, and must not, compromise the ideals of wilderness. We cannot say that only one road will be built, one stream diverted, or one well drilled. Twenty-five years of compromise have meant that of 233 distinct ecosystems identified by the Forest Service throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, only 81 are protected as Wilderness.

The concept of wilderness is akin to human virtue. Twenty-five years after an act was written to protect that virtue, Wilderness stands bewildered and disheveled on a downtown Washington street corner. Its soul may yet be saved, but it won't take many more clearcuts of old-growth timber from the southern Appalachian Highlands to Alaska's Tongass, or of oil and gas prospecting requests from Florida's Big Cypress to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, before the National Wilderness Preservation System is the strumpet that our avarice and stupidity would make of her. AF
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Title Annotation:Wilderness Act
Author:Reiger, George
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:Fire gods and federal policy.
Next Article:Return to Admiralty.

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