OIL-DRENCHED otters, sea birds, and beaches in Alaska's Prince William Sound remind everyone of what can happen when large-scale commercial activity moves into an unspoiled wilderness. Even with the most conscientious safeguards (which Exxon's weren't), a certain amount of spoilage is nearly inevitable. That's why many areas are set aside by Congress as wilderness preserves, to give nature a place of its own. The process began in earnest 25 years ago, when Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Wilderness Act. Its goal was ``to secure for the American people ... the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.''
The Wilderness Society, marking the act's first quarter century, has published an impressive volume, ``Wilderness in America: A Vision for the Future of the Nation's Wildlands.'' It sets forth plans to nearly double the 91 million acres now embraced by the federal wilderness system. Land would be added around Yellowstone National Park, in the Appalachian highlands of Tennessee and Georgia, in New England's woods and mountains, in the Southwest, the northern Rockies, the old-growth forests of the West Coast, and in Alaska (including much of the coastline of Prince William Sound).
It's an ambitious plan, but not as visionary as it might appear. The land involved is for the most part already publicly owned, and the added wilderness represents only a tiny fraction of all public lands. Plenty of acreage will remain open to mineral and timber exploitation.
The Exxon Valdez accident is generating some needed rethinking about one pristine tract of wilderness, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just down the coast from the huge Prudhoe Bay oil fields. In creating the refuge, Congress designated only a portion as part of the federal wilderness preservation system, and thus off limits to commercial intrusion. With congressional approval, the refuge's sensitive coastal plain can be drilled - a plan supported by the Bush administration and headed for approval before the spill.
The oil damage to Prince William Sound, plus deepening concerns about the long-term environmental damage caused by oil drilling on the tundra, should cause a lot of second thoughts on Capitol Hill. The balance between economic activity and protecting nature will have to be carefully adjusted yet again.
How heavily should the value of untrammeled wilderness weigh in that scale?
In the end, the value of wilderness doesn't really belong in the same scale with society's needs to extract oil and fell trees. Wild country has its practical benefits of preserving useful species and providing recreation - things one could attempt to put a dollar sign on. But beyond that, it feeds the human spirit, teaching silent lessons about peace, innocence, and man's capacity for wonder.
A nation that considers itself a moral as well as an economic leader should do all it can to preserve its resource of wilderness.