On the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the question seems to be whether Bambi and Bossy can both be invited to the birthday party.
A recent forum at the University of New Mexico brought together divergent views on wilderness issues, from those who say too much land already is designated to wilderness to those who say all but wilderness uses should stop immediately."There is a real need for a more civil and balanced approach to land use," said George Leonard, a timber planning specialist and associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "We spend too much time on debate instead of the compatability of uses."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who co-sponsored the forum, said the anger focused at federal land managers has made it impossible for them to do their jobs.
The proposal to set aside land "where the forces of nature predominate" was controversial from the start.
The U.S. Forest Service in 1924 created the first wilderness area at the urging of New Mexico Southwest region Forest Service administrator Aldo Leopold. The service set aside 750,000 acres in the Gila forest of southern New Mexico.
Former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said the bill establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System 25 years ago was proposed by President John F. Kennedy at the beginning of his term. Forest Service officials did not want congressional action on wilderness, he said, because "they were taking care of it."
Ranchers in particular worked hard to defeat the bill, fearing the loss of valuable grazing land, Udall said.
But supporters, led by New Mexico's Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, fought four years for the legislation.
Since then the number of acres set aside for wilderness areas has grown to 90 million in 44 states, a combined total of 142,000 square miles, which is nearly the size of Montana. The Bureau of Land Management recently made a preliminary decision to recommend that Congress add 10 million to 12 million more acres to the system.
"With all that land in that status, there has not been any congressional research," said Grant Gerber, founder of the Wilderness Impact Research Foundation based in Elko, Nev. "Until Congress has those studies in front of them, until the government knows what it's doing, it ought to hold off (designating more wilderness)."
The BLM recommendation is just a small part of the total area environmentalists hope eventually to set aside, he said.
"The preservationists are never going to be happy," Gerber said. "The users of the land think it is common sense to use the land. That's what we're fighting for: the opportunity for the people to use the land."
But George Frampton, president of The Wilderness Society, said designating land as wilderness is making use of the land.
Frampton said wilderness protects watersheds, preserves habitat for endangered species and provides for the increasing demand for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing.
"This is not just a quality-of-life but a survival issue," Frampton said.