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Wilderness as Legacy

Wildness can be a perishable thing, succumbing to the bite of the chain saw, the ruts of the all-terrain vehicle and the seemingly inevitable crush of development. As California’s population soars toward 50 million, our remaining wild lands become more precious.

This generation has an obligation to future generations to save these places before they are overwhelmed by civilization. Congress can take a great stride this year by passing the proposed California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2002, introduced Wednesday as S 2535 by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The measure would add 2.5 million acres to the state’s federally protected wilderness system in 77 areas ranging from the desert of the southeast to the misty forests of the state’s North Coast. The measure also would add 473 miles along 22 streams to the federal wild and scenic rivers network.

The plan would establish 39 new wilderness areas and add to 34 existing ones. California has 14 million acres of wilderness, much of it in remote parts of the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert and the northern forests. The Boxer bill would expand wildernesses in both the Angeles and Los Padres national forests, including California condor habitat in Ventura County. Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) will bring a companion measure to the House.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides for setting aside areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” All the land in Boxer’s proposal already is in federal ownership. Wilderness status prohibits commercial activity such as logging, mining and livestock grazing, although existing mining and grazing can continue. There can be no motorized travel. Over the years, the most popular uses of wilderness areas have been hiking, backpacking and horseback riding. Now, an increasing number of Americans are visiting the backcountry to ski and snowshoe, hunt and fish, raft the streams, climb the peaks and simply enjoy the quiet and solitude.

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The passage of wilderness legislation is always contentious. But Boxer and her environmental supporters have worked for two years to limit opposition by consulting with local interests, mountain bikers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and others.

One congressman says the bill violates the proper balance between people and the environment. In fact, wilderness allows humans to enjoy the land with minimal impact, as they should.

Some say there’s already enough wilderness. But Henry David Thoreau had a response that is even more to the point today than when he wrote it in “Walden” in 1854: “We need the tonic of wildness.... We can never have enough of nature.” Passage of the Boxer bill would be a good tonic for California.


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