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Keep wilderness options open

IT isn't one of those issues on which Washington and the public rivet their attention - issues arising from density of population, the conflicts of people and nations. By comparison, the issue of space freed of civilization's crush may seem like a luxury.

But in the long run the preservation of substantial portions of the unspoiled American wilderness is of great moment.

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These are important days - some would say crucial ones - for the wilderness. Behind-the-scene negotiations are vigorously under way between proponents and opponents of some two dozen proposals to establish new wilderness areas in several states.

Two major points are at issue. One is whether considerable additional land will be designated by the federal government as wilderness - and thus preserved from development, at least for the foreseeable future - in some two dozen states. Such a move would be welcome: In the future land could always be removed from wilderness status if truly compelling reasons to do so existed, whereas it would be literally impossible to turn parking lots and housing developments back into wilderness. The second fundamental issue is whether the measures - a separate one exists for each affected state - would include a statement in effect agreeing that no new wilderness area shall ever be designated in these states. Such action would be most unwise: No limitation should be set on the future expansion of the wilderness system. Freedom must exist to act to meet any changing situation.

This latter question is the crux of the negotiations in progress in Washington: If it can be resolved, most of the bills are likely to pass Congress this year. And, many think, to be signed into law by the President.

If the wilderness bills were to become law in anywhere near the present form, there would likely be little future push for additional acreage in many Eastern states, or in some in the Midwest as well. Included in current proposals is most of the acreage that conservationists reasonably hope to preserve as wilderness areas in these states.

The West is another story. Conservationists in many Western states hold that significantly more land than that listed in current proposals before Congress ultimately ought to be preserved as wilderness areas. Sometime in the future the need might be seen to preserve deserving additional sites, and pressure might resume for such action. Thus it is important that this option not be foreclosed by limiting future expansion of areas protected by wilderness designation.

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