No new wilderness areas

July 05, 2005 11:00 pm

The last time Congress created new wilderness in Northeast Oregon was 1984.

Wilderness advocates may be hungry for new victories — not to mention causes for fund-raising campaigns.

But a lot has changed in 21 years that should lessen the perceived urgency of wilderness designation even among its supporters.

Appeals and court decisions and species concerns have all but crippled the extractive industries in our region.

So for lack of means or an extractive management strategy, much of the non-wilderness land in Northeast Oregon is essentially wild.

There's no need to take that additional step and ask Congress to establish new wilderness, tying land managers' hands forever.

Regardless, the Wallowa-Whitman and the two other Blue Mountain forests are presently undergoing a routine forest plan review.

As part of that review, the agency is conducting a wilderness inventory.

It's cause for public interest, yes. But it's no reason for exaggerated hysterics or crying wolf on the part of wilderness foes.

The wilderness inventory in a forest plan is a little like a middle manager in a business sorting through resumes for a job that may or may not be created by upper management.

You look for likely candidates, sorting the qualified applicants from the unqualified.

Then you make a recommendation to your boss on whether to hire someone or not.

For the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the last forest plan review included recommending to its boss, the U.S. Congress, no new hires in the wilderness department.

We expect the same out of this review.

Conditions on the forest have not changed to put in peril any of the lands likely to be found to have "wilderness" character. If anything, there is less pressure to extract resources or develop facilities on the forest's wildest areas than there was 21 years ago, when more lumber mills remained in operation and the last of Northeast Oregon's wilderness was established.

Today, roughly one in five acres of Blue Mountain forest is officially reserved as wilderness. That's plenty to fulfill the intent of the Wilderness Act.