FOREST CONSERVATION NEWS TODAY
America's Protected Wilderness Turns 40
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September 4, 2004
OVERVIEW & COMMENTARY by Glen Barry, Ph.D., Forests.org
Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act - a monumental
piece of American legislation that protected much of the nation's wild and
special places. There are now some 662 federal wilderness areas, covering
some 106 million acres across 44 states. Not only do these areas provide
wildlife habitat, recreation and clean water; they also are major
component of North American continental ecological sustainability. Large
contiguous wild natural areas are required to maintain atmospheric,
hydrological and terrestrial systems. Yet current designations in North
America are not adequate in this regard. This is why it is so important
to gain protections for the tens of millions of acres of wilderness
quality lands that lack federal protection. America's current leaders
threaten what has been a bi-partisan agreement to protect America's wild
legacy, with the current Congress having failed to designate one acre of
new wilderness. The President is now opening wilderness quality land to
gas and oil drilling, and to commercial logging, ostensibly to protect far
off communities from wild fires. Large natural areas are more than an
amusing amenity; they are the foundation that maintains conditions
suitable for life - all life, including yours.
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RELAYED TEXT STARTS HERE:
Title: An Enduring Resource of Wilderness
Source: Copyright 2004, Environment News Service
Date: September 3, 2004
Byline: J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 3, 2004 (ENS) - Today marks the 40th anniversary
of a major milestone in the protection of the nation's wild and special
places, the signing of the Wilderness Act.
On September 3, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark
conservation law, which protects areas "where the earth and its community
of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does
The pressures that prompted federal lawmakers to adopt the act were noted
in the law's statement of policy:
"In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by
expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify
all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands
designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it
is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the
American people of present and future generations the benefits of an
enduring resource of wilderness."
The original act set aside 54 wilderness areas - covering 9.1 million
acres - of federal land in 13 states through the creation of the National
Wilderness Preservation System. It also created a national mandate to
identify additional areas within national forests, parks and wildlife
refuges for protection. In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act
extended the mandate to lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land
Today the nation has 662 federal wilderness areas, covering some 106
million acres across 44 states.
The protected areas total 4.7 percent of the United States, with more than
half this total in Alaska.
Many of these areas provide a wide variety of recreational opportunities
such as hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, camping and kayaking.
"The world had never seen legislation like it: a deliberate and visionary
effort to protect from development vast areas of wild places, and to
preserve them for the enjoyment of all Americans of every generation,"
The act did not have an easy path into existence - the first version of
the law was introduced in 1957 by Senator Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota
Democrat, and Representative John Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican.
The concept of enacting a law to protect federal wilderness was met with
deep skepticism and even drew opposition from the National Park Service.
But after eight years - and more than 60 rewrites - the Wilderness Act
overwhelmingly passed both the Senate and the House and was sent to the
At the time the act was being debated in the Congress there were
"bulldozers and cement mixers ready to go to work," said former Maryland
Republican Senator Charles McC Mathis, who helped steer the bill through
"If the act had not passed they would have gone to work and we would have
lost that which could not have been repaired," Mathis said. "This is a
bipartisan effort that has succeeded - it is unique in its history and
The 40th commemoration of the Wilderness Act comes amid concern by
conservationists that the bipartisan spirit that permitted enactment of
the law has dissipated under the Bush administration.
"Our nation's wild lands are at a crossroads," Meadows said. "Despite a
long tradition of strong bipartisan support for increased wilderness
protection, the current administration appears determined to move in the
Critics note the administration has allowed the sale of oil and gas leases
on scores of public sites with wilderness quality lands and contend a
settlement between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the state of
Utah brokered by Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton in effect bars
that agency from identifying lands for wilderness potential.
Bush administration officials are quick to point out that the settlement
does not affect the 89 million acres of BLM land in Alaska, nor does it
impact the 23 million acres of BLM land already designated as wilderness
or identified as wilderness study areas (WSAs).
WSAs are lands that meet wilderness characteristics and are managed to
preserve those values until Congress decides whether to designate them as
Critics note that the BLM has not properly inventoried the 262 million
surface acres across 11 Western states under its authority and say the
settlement has allowed the agency to sell oil and gas leases on many
wilderness quality lands.
There are more than 23 million acres worthy of protection, they say, but
now the BLM has given up responsibility for identifying and safeguarding
these wild places - leaving Congress with little guidance as to what
merits formal protection.
A coalition of environmental groups has sued in a bid to get the Utah
settlement tossed out. The case is pending in federal court.
Citizen groups continue to push for wilderness protection, with four
federal bills currently pending before Congress to preserve land in
addition to legislation or proposals pending in 20 states.
The current Congress has not designated a single acre of federal land as
Conservationists estimate there are still tens of millions of acres of
wilderness quality lands that lack federal protection and hope the 40th
anniversary of the Wildness Act will help generate the political support
needed to protect some of these areas.
"The bottom line is time and time again Americans have voiced their
overwhelming support for adding more wild lands to the National Wilderness
Preservation System," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign
for America's Wilderness.
"People know that by preserving these wild lands, our water will be
clearer, our air will be cleaner, and we will be saving the very natural
things that define us as Americans."
Title: Wilderness Act turns 40, and people are still arguing about it
Source: Copyright 2004, San Francisco Chronicle
Date: September 3, 2004
Byline: Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer
Few pieces of environmental legislation have had such far-reaching effects
as the Wilderness Act, which observes its 40th anniversary today.
The federal act designated 9.1 million acres as wilderness, described by
the bill's framers as land "where the earth and its community of life are
untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
More than anything else, the 1964 bill planted the concept in the American
consciousness that wilderness has innate public value, that it contributes
to the common good.
"What unfolded after the act's passage was culturally extraordinary," said
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "In some ways, it was an
answer to Frederick Jackson Turner's famous 1892 speech about the closing
of the frontier."
That speech, said Pope, "opened a conversation about the character of the
American landscape. Even with the frontier closed, we could still have
wilderness -- or we could manicure every acre, as was done in Europe."
The Wilderness Act, said Pope, marked the end of that conversation.
"We decided that wilderness was part of the American character," Pope
said. "The act said: We don't want to be a second Europe."
But wilderness is also a polarizing issue -- as it was in 1964. For the
past four decades, advocates for the wilderness designation have battled
with loggers, ranchers, petroleum company executives and miners who
contend it locks up natural resources that could benefit the nation.
"It has been a contentious fight from the beginning, and it remains so,"
said Phil Aune, vice president of the California Forestry Association, a
group that represents the state's timber and lumber interests. "Generally,
we feel the act has worked in the interests of the nation. We support both
the concept of wilderness and its effective management. The problem is
that it isn't managed effectively. To date, the policy has been to
designate and walk away."
That has resulted, said Aune, in millions of acres of wildlands that "are
overstocked with trees and infested with insects," creating the conditions
for catastrophic wildfire.
Federal managers, he said, "need to develop effective strategies for
managing their wilderness areas."
Today, about 106 million acres of federal land have the wilderness rubric,
including about 14 million acres in California. In some areas, some
activities may be grandfathered in -- say, limited grazing rights for a
particular ranch -- but a federal wilderness is intended as an enduring
testament to the wild, with human impact kept to the absolute minimum.
In essence, the designation is a policy overlay on existing federal lands:
Wilderness areas have been created in lands managed by the U.S. Forest
Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Though land use varies widely among these agencies, the wilderness
designation imposes the toughest possible federal strictures on human
In large portions of the national parks, for example, development may be
authorized for lodges, parking lots, restaurants and stores. But in a
wilderness area -- even one on Forest Service land, located adjacent to a
mine or active logging sale -- nothing may be constructed. That includes
access roads and large campgrounds.
Wilderness remains a popular cause among individual legislators on Capitol
Hill, with a sheaf of new wilderness bills pending in Congress. Among them
is a bill by Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer that would place
about 2.5 million acres of California's federal lands in the wilderness
system, and a bill by Congressman Mike Thompson, D-Napa, that would
designate about 300,000 acres of new wilderness on federal holdings in
Northern California's coastal range.
The areas now up for wilderness designation differ in degree as to scenic
or natural resource value, but most share a common quality: They have few,
if any, roads.
These roadless areas are the raw material from which wilderness areas are
created. Without the wilderness designation, they are vulnerable to a
variety of impacts -- logging, mining, drilling for gas and oil.
Currently, the Bush administration's policy on these areas is to maintain
their essential character. But earlier this summer, it proposed new
roadless area rules that might result in more intensive recreational and
fire management activities.
The Bush administration also wants to allow state governors a greater say
over roadless area policy -- an anathema to environmentalists, because
local pressure to extract resources could trump preservationist impulses,
resulting in degradation of the roadless areas to the point that they
could no longer be considered wilderness candidates.
In fact, say many wilderness advocates, the administration's purported
roadless area policies are a stalking horse to mask the real agenda: a
rollback of wilderness protections.
"The administration either doesn't believe in wilderness or it doesn't
believe there should be a national answer to the basic question (of
whether wilderness should exist or not)," said Pope. "They are expanding
oil and gas leasing all over the ... West, and they have concealed their
logging agenda by casting it as a shield for fire protection."
But Dan Jiron, the national press officer for the U.S. Forest Service,
said the agency has no intention of overturning basic roadless area
protections. Rather, he said, the agency wants to ensure that the public
derives the greatest possible benefit from these lands.
"The Forest Service has a long-standing commitment to preserving roadless
values," Jiron said. "If you went from national forest to national forest,
you wouldn't find any plans for new roads. But you may find more emphasis
on recreation, watershed preservation or fire management, which would be
difficult to implement under a wilderness designation. For example, you
can ride a mountain bike in a (national) recreation area, but not in a
Some land-use policy analysts say it is time to reconsider the entire
issue of wilderness protection.
Because the economy of the rural West is shifting from resource extraction
to recreation, said Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies
for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, proximity to wilderness
areas might well help some communities.
But that doesn't mean, he added, that wilderness should be subsidized by
the government. While environmental protection is a luxury of prosperous
nations, Taylor argued that the marketplace is the best arbiter for
determining the true value of wild areas.
Asking whether wilderness is a good thing, Taylor said, "is like asking if
pizza is a good thing. It's subjective. For some people, wilderness has
spiritual value, for other people, it doesn't."
For the short term, significant new additions to the federal wilderness
system seem unlikely; Congress and the Bush administration are united in
their lukewarm enthusiasm for such proposals.
That's fine with Aune.
"I think Boxer's bill will have a difficult time, but Thompson's could
have a little more legs," he said. "In any event, I think there are better
ways to manage the public lands at stake, particularly because wilderness
designation could further impede fire suppression."
Pope agreed with Aune that the political dynamics are working against new
wilderness areas for the time being.
"But sooner or later, more wilderness designations will be made," Pope
said. "The 1964 act merely whetted the American appetite for wild,
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