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Saving the Wilderness

Battles rage 30 years after passage of a law to protect it

`IN wildness is the preservation of the world,'' Henry David Thoreau said. It was a typically high-flown statement from the New England writer. Clear, sweeping, profound - not unlike the mountains, forests, and deserts that swept westward from Walden Pond, forbidding and promising.

Such ``wildness'' seemed without limits then. And over the years ``crown jewels'' like Yosemite and Yellowstone won government protection. But by the middle of this century, it was clear to many that the United States needed to preserve those remaining wilderness areas from development.

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After years of legislative wrangling (including 66 revisions and 18 hearings), Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Any area to be included in the new National Wilderness Preservation System, the law declared, must retain ``its primeval character and influence,'' it must be a place ``where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.''

The notion of wilderness is as strong in public thought today as it was to such advocates as Thoreau, John Muir, Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Howard Zahniser, the executive director of the Wilderness Society who first drafted the Wilderness Act.

It is an idea that has brought some 700 government land managers, conservationists, and others to the National Wilderness Conference in Santa Fe this week to discuss the act and how to improve it. It is the focus of ``National Geography Awareness Week'' (Nov. 13-19), whose theme this year is ``Geography: Keeping Wilderness in Sight.''

When passed 30 years ago, the Wilderness Act protected some 9 million acres. Since then, the system has grown more than 10-fold: President Clinton's recent signing of the California Desert Protection Act pushed the total to more than 100 million acres. That sounds like a lot, but it's less than 5 percent of the land area in the United States.

More than 95 percent of all protected wilderness is in the 11 Western states and Alaska. More than half is in Alaska alone, which has some 57 million acres of wilderness. Every state but six (Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Kansas, and Iowa) has at least some designated wilderness. But most wilderness east of the 100th meridian is concentrated in Florida's Everglades National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota.

These are places of release and relief, of quietude if not solitude, of recreation in its truest sense. But they can also be places of controversy and contention.

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WHILE mankind is supposed to be just a ``visitor'' to wilderness, there is some commercial activity. Mining claims staked before 1964 were allowed to continue, as was cattle grazing on allotments already approved for ranching. Today, groups of backpackers and river runners - many organized by professional outfitters - are having an increasing impact.

Some now want to limit such recreational activities. Meanwhile, conservationists are pushing for a more vigorous federal program to buy up so-called ``inholdings'' - cabins and other privately owned sites that existed on federal land subsequently designated as wilderness. This has riled ``wise use'' groups and property-rights advocates.

Even more controversial is the push to expand the wilderness system. Oil companies want access to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; environmentalists hope to keep oil rigs out by having Congress declare it a wilderness.

For 16 years, lawmakers have haggled over a Montana wilderness bill to protect some 1.6 million acres of roadless federal land.

Some environmentalists favor this as the most politically realistic goal. Others hold out for the proposed ``Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.'' This would include 16 million acres connecting five major ecosystems in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon with corridors allowing such large endangered mammals as grizzly bears and wolves to survive.

Increasingly, conservation biologists see wilderness as more than a museum of nature, as a protected, static reminder of North America before mass human migration, before industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. Large untrammeled areas are necessary, they say, to preserve biodiversity.

The ``Wildlands Project'' is a foundation-funded board of scientists and grass-roots representatives who provide scientific advice, financing, and other support to environmental groups working on wilderness-recovery plans for such areas as the Adirondack and Appalachian Mountains. Their goal is to preserve very large areas of what radical environmentalist Dave Foreman (cofounder of Earth First!) calls ``the big outside.''

Wilderness typically is thought of as a place of bears and wolves, rocks and ice, wildflowers and ancient trees, a place separate from people. But as Pulitzer Prize-winning Westerner Wallace Stegner once wrote, echoing Thoreau, ``Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.''

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