Saving America's wilderness

Once in awhile, the arguing, partisanship and deal making that mark business as usual in Washington produce something that nearly everyone can love. After years of discussion, a package of wilderness bills that would protect giant swaths of land across the nation -- including more than 700,000 acres in California -- is one of them.

Designating lands as federal "wilderness areas" bans motorized vehicles and most road building, instead setting them aside for hiking, biking, tent camping, fishing and the like. In Los Angeles County, one of the bills identifies 40,000 acres in the vicinity of Magic Mountain, Pleasant View Ridge and Piru Creek for designation as permanent urban escapes. In addition, 190,000 acres would be set aside in the Riverside County desert, including the area of Joshua Tree National Park.

Wilderness areas: A Saturday editorial incorrectly said biking would be allowed in proposed new wilderness areas of California and across the nation. Bicycles are not allowed in designated wilderness areas. —

Much of the proposed California wilderness already lies within national forests or is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. But such lands are currently open to multiple uses, including logging, mining and other industry; in addition, the lands proposed for wilderness designation are increasingly hemmed in by development or by pressures to allow motorbikes and other off-road vehicles.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) initially sought to preserve far more land -- about 800,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra alone. Legislators from both parties hammered out a considerably smaller package that contains compromises between industry and environmentalists. For example, after an outcry from the snowmobile industry in the Mammoth area, an 11,000-acre swath for snowmobile use was carved out in addition to 410,000 acres set aside as wilderness. A fourth wilderness zone, 77,000 acres, would be created in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

The package has been sent to the Senate floor and, considering the bipartisan process that produced it, is expected to have a relatively easy ride with few changes. Its success so far is a reflection of a changing consensus among Americans, who have grown increasingly aware that what once seemed like infinite, pristine open space is suffering as a result of development, global warming, population pressures and heavy recreational use. We are, in fact, loving our wilderness to death; this package of bills would be one way of restoring a measure of health to it.