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Edited by: John Stewart

Wilderness is Coming to a County Near You

By John Stewart

The months of speculation and rumor are now becoming available to the public. The only question remaining is the exact number of acres involved. Estimates of 7 million acres of new Wilderness may prove conservative. The California Wilderness Coalition is working with Senator Boxer's staff to craft a bill which will designate 7 million or more acres of new Wilderness areas within the state of California.

In a November 2001 press release, the California Wilderness Coalition identified over 7 million acres in the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains of Mono and Inyo Counties and other central and northern California counties that are eligible for wilderness designation.

Senator Feinstein has been linked to a a tour of Southern California Desert areas involving over 300,000 acres. The January 7, 2002 "tour" included a representative from Senator Feinstein's Washington, DC office in collaboration with Paul Spitler, Executive Director of the California Wilderness Coalition and Eldon Hughes of the Sierra Club in Bureau of Land Management vehicles driven by BLM staff to visit and begin the process of designating Wilderness. Mr. Spitler, also a member of the California Off-Highway Motorized Vehicle Recreation Commission, stated at the National Trails Symposium held in Redding, California (September 2000), that 14 million acres of Wilderness in California is not enough and an additional 7 million acres is needed.

According to government figures, there are 644 Wilderness units totaling over 105 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System. These figures exclude public lands managed as Wilderness such as the National Park System. Designated Wilderness accounts for 4% of the U.S. land mass and about 14% of federal (public) lands.

So, just how much is 105 million acres? In square miles, 105 million acres equates to about 164,063 square miles. To put it in perspective, seven states have land area in excess of 100,000 square miles. Alaska (656,424 square miles) and Texas (268,601 square miles) are larger than the National Wilderness Preservation System. Of the other states, California at 163,707 square miles is the closest. In perspective, wilderness lands would be the third largest state.

The proposed figure of 7 million acres of new Wilderness equates to almost 11,000 square miles. Six states have less land mass. At 14 million acres (21,875 square miles), the current California wilderness area is larger than nine states. The additional 7 million acres would mean California wilderness area larger than 11 states.

Coupled with the Wilderness proposals is a plan to seek "wild and scenic" designation for over 2,000 miles of rivers in the state. These "eligible" rivers include segments in southern California urban areas, the desert Panamint Mountains (Surprise Canyon) and many Sierra mountain streams. The BLM draft management plan for the Western and Eastern Mojave Deserts includes provisions for wild and scenic river designations.

Sally Miller, Eastern Sierra Coordinator for the California Wilderness Coalition and Mono County Planning Commissioner, stated "...this train is going to Washington, so get out of the way." Senator Boxer's staff said the senator won't include any piece of land in the bill without the support of local governments and residents. While some county Boards of Supervisors have endorsed the proposal, others have declined to their endorsement and others have not acted.

What does this do for recreation? Considering the lands areas involved and the activist agenda of the California Wilderness Coalition, motorized recreation will be eliminated on a majority of the public lands within the State of California. Where logging and agriculture was once the main-stay of rural counties, those counties have been working to attract tourists. Many counties feature hundreds of miles of unpaved roads with primitive camping opportunities that are enjoyed by mountain bike and motorized recreationists. Wilderness designation will eliminate mountain bike and motorized recreation and reduce the recreationist dollars that support the rural communities.

What can you do? The choice is yours; accept more wilderness or fight.

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