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Wilderness expansion proposal triggers debate

The Associated Press
February 2, 2004

CAMP SHERMAN — Environmental groups are pushing Congress to designate nearly 11 million acres of Oregon land as wilderness, off-limits to roads, development, recreation and logging.

In a state that already has 2.27 million acres of designated wilderness, that would be about a sixfold increase.

The land in question stretches from an old growth forest that cradles the Metolius River to 6 million acres of sage and juniper covered high desert in Central and Southeastern Oregon.

The campaigns are sure to be controversial: Many environmentalists advocate the need for more wilderness areas to protect animal and plant habitat and preserve Oregon’s natural beauty.

But others are reluctant to designate an acre more of wilderness for fear that the restrictions that come with wilderness designation could have devastating economic impacts.

Ultimately, under the Wilderness Act, only Congress may designate an official wilderness area, and it takes an act of Congress to revoke wilderness designation.

Adding to wilderness areas is the only way to ensure that “core ecological areas” remain intact, said Tim Lillebo, field representative of the Oregon Natural Resources Council and a proponent of the wilderness additions.

“We need the wilderness,” said Phil Meglasson, a member of the Central Oregon Trails Alliance, a Bend-based coalition of mountain bikers. “Generally speaking, mountain bikers are in favor of the wilderness, even though we get cut out of the wilderness. We need wilderness because some places are becoming overused. They need protection.”

But Oregon ranchers, timber industry advocates and others say that the state already has all the wilderness it needs.

“The issue with wilderness is that it takes more lands out of management,” said Chuck Burley, a consultant who represents the timber industry. “That raises the question: Is it a good idea to be locking up more lands? What does that do to forest health and fire danger?”

In most cases, forest fires in wilderness areas cannot be fought with motorized technology. Firefighters must battle on foot without the aid of chain saws.

Bob Skinner, past president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said that wilderness is a tool used by environmental groups to exclude people from public land.

With little support from the Republican congressional contingent, environmentalists look to the state’s Democratic representatives in Washington, D.C., to promote their cause. So far, their hopes have gone unfulfilled. Although Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has discussed the Badlands wilderness proposal with environmental groups, he has not introduced a bill.

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