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U.S. FOREST SERVICE CHIEF CALLS WILDERNESS VITAL

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Wilderness is the bottom line of what's good in the American outdoors and it cannot be squandered, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service says.

"Wilderness is our resource base," Jack Ward Thomas said during an interview while in Missoula earlier this month to address a group of federal and state officers gathered at the Ninemile Ranger Station near Missoula.Wilderness is critical for its recreation potential and as "a reservoir of biodiversity" crucial to the Forest Service's new ecosystem management campaign, he told the Missoulian.

"Where else in the world do you have the kind of opportunities we have here?"

Ironically, the wilderness issue in Montana again is before Congress in three separate versions: one calling for roughly 800,000 acres of new wilderness. Others seek a set-aside of 1.2 million acres or 1.7 million acres for wilderness.

The lowest figure is included in a bill offered by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, who said much of his bill was written by representatives of mining and wood products industries. The Forest Service also has previously recommended only about 800,000 acres of additional wilderness in the state.

Under ecosystem management, the Forest Service will no longer look at "a piece of land as something we manipulate to extract a certain level of production," Thomas said. "We will, instead, do what is needed to keep the ecosystem healthy, then see what level of production the system can sustain."

He said decisions made today will have an impact 1,000 years from now.

Thomas also said he hopes to improve funding for wilderness management. Twenty percent of the national forests are designated as wilderness, but just 1 percent of the agency's budget goes to wilderness management.

"You would think we could at least double that," he said.

The wilderness management training course that Thomas addressed June 10 drew line officers from the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Thomas, the first wildlife biologist to head the agency, was appointed by President Clinton six months ago.