Alaska editorial: The Wilderness Act has continuing consequences

Posted: Tuesday, September 14, 2004

This editorial appeared in Saturday's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The Wilderness Act of 1964 didn't rate much mention on the news pages in Fairbanks when it was approved first by the U.S. Senate, then the House and subsequently signed into law by President Johnson.

But the consequences of the president's signature 40 years ago last week are felt to this day and in a much more prominent manner.

In the years since the law's enactment, attempts to designate new wilderness areas under the act have pitted familiar foes and led to numerous news stories. Supporters say the act allows for the nation's remaining wilderness areas to be secured from development for the benefit of subsequent generations. Opponents, many of whom see the potential for environmentally sound mineral extraction in some of these remotes lands, say the act can be overused and misused. Specific selections can even alienate local populations if there is not sufficient community or state support for granting a wilderness designation.

Here are a few facts that show the Wilderness Act's impact:

• Nearly 5 percent of the nation is protected as wilderness.

• Alaska has 58 million acres of designated wilderness, more than half the nation's total. That's 16 percent of the state's land mass.

• California has the greatest number of designated wilderness areas, at 130. Arizona is second with 90, and Alaska is third with 48.

• President Carter designated more wilderness than any other president, with most of the 66.3 million acres he approved located in Alaska. President Reagan added 10.6 million acres; President Clinton, 9.5 million acres; President Johnson, 4 million acres; the first President Bush, 4 million acres; President Ford, 3.5 million acres; and President Nixon, 1.3 million acres. The current President Bush has signed legislation adding 529,604 acres, most of it in Nevada.

Does the nation now have enough official wilderness?

In Congress, the Republican representative who heads the House subcommittee that oversees wilderness areas has said the pace of adding to the total acreage "needs to be slowed down to keep some people from ... abusing the intent of the law by keeping the public off public lands."

That's an important consideration. This nation, after all, must become more reliant on its own mineral wealth rather than on the resources of other nations, and mineral wealth is on occasion found in the wilds.

No wilderness designation has ever been undone - if someone were to even try, they would almost certainly be tarred as an asphalt lover or a bunny hater. Now, with about 100 million acres designated under the Wilderness Act of 1964, future proposals should be met with serious questioning.

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