Five areas besieged by our 'civilization' Heritage: Time could be running out for some of this country's untamed corners.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everyday wildness nourishes us like good bread, while true wilderness remains - for most of us - a place we may go only occasionally, or never at all. But just knowing it's there is a reassuring part of our reality, and we rest easier with the sense that such places exist.

When the Wilderness Society listed America's most endangered wild lands last year, they were most concerned with the value of these places as reservoirs of wildness. These places rank at the top because of their natural resources, national significance and immediate threats to their integrity.

As destinations, they are not just for hard-body adventurers. Ordinary people with a simple love of wild places can enjoy them, too. And that's the best way to see how you feel about these areas: Visit them and decide for yourself if they're worth saving.

Ben Beach, Wilderness Society spokesman, says the entire staff discussed important places that face serious, imminent threats and decided on its list "without intense debate." He said he feels that five merit attention because of the breadth of their resources and the magnitude of the threats to them.

In the year since the list was issued, there has been one bright spot: The Whitney Estate in New York had been threatened by the subdivision of privately owned Adirondack forest, but that danger was eliminated when New York state bought the land; it is scheduled to open to the public this summer. Despite that victory, "The cold reality is that the threats to these five special places won't evaporate overnight," says Rindy O'Brien, the Wilderness Society's vice president for public policy. "We are prepared for a drawn-out struggle."

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Devotees of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - an intact ecosystem covering 19 1/2 million acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska - judge it the standard by which we should measure all other wilderness. The openness of the tundra inspires wonder on a huge scale.

The 1 1/2-million-acre coastal plain is the heart of the refuge - the nation's most important onshore polar-bear denning area and calving grounds for more than 150,000 caribou. One spiritual leader of the Gwich'in Indian people, who rely on these caribou for food, believes the coastal plain is too sacred for a Gwich'in even to visit. His prohibition doesn't extend to non-Gwich'in, but he would want all visitors to show respect.

Here, you have the chance to look a wolf in the eye, watch musk oxen corral to defend themselves, experience intimate encounters with arctic fox or caribou or the freedom of 24 hours of summer daylight.

But now, the prospect of finding oil here threatens the wildlife pageant of the coastal plain. Development would destroy it. Ironically, the Interior Department says there's a more than 80 percent chance that there is no oil at all. Even in hopeful projections, the refuge would provide a minimal amount of energy for the nation.

President Clinton has declared the Arctic Refuge off-limits for drilling. His veto threat will last only as long as his administration. Conservationists hope Congress will designate the coastal plain as wilderness (in addition to the 8 million acres of the refuge already so designated), permanently protecting the richness of this wild world.

Klamath Basin

The lower 48 equivalent of the Arctic Refuge's wildlife spectacle takes flight over the Klamath Basin, straddling the Oregon-California border, perhaps the greatest concentration of migratory waterfowl on the continent.

On a given spring or fall day at one of the six wildlife refuges here, you can see a million ducks, geese and swans. You can renew the relationship humans have with other animals simply by rising early in your motel in Tulelake, Calif., or Klamath Falls, Ore., and driving to one of the refuges for sunrise.

In fall, if you stand at the edge of the marsh, 100,000 snow geese circle above you, their booming and crying thundering in the sky. The largest lower-48 concentration of bald eagles fishes and roosts on the lakeshores in the winter; you may see 100 eagles at once. And in spring, sandhill cranes dance and bow and fill the marshes with their warbling rounds of basso music.

Klamath Basin runs from Crater Lake National Park, Ore., south to Lava Beds National Monument, Calif. It includes the six refuges, five wilderness areas, four national forests, one national grassland and views to the snowy cone of Mount Shasta.

The competition for water poses a serious threat. Today's Klamath Basin, with its millions of birds, is astonishing enough; it's hard to imagine the place before the Bureau of Reclamation began diverting basin water for agricultural purposes in 1906. Since then, wildlife habitat has dropped 75 percent and bird numbers 80 percent in this Everglades of the West.

Conservation efforts now include restoration as well as preservation, but farmers see any change as a threat to their livelihoods. Local Indian tribes, who have used the wetlands for millenniums, side with the conservationists.

Snoqualmie Pass

As burgeoning suburbs bump up against shrinking islands of land still in their natural state, hikers and bikers, boaters and skiers pour into wild lands. Everywhere from New York to Nome, people demand land for recreation as well as for timber and copper and wheat.

Seattle is a prime example. With its vibrant economy and its growth blocked on the west by Puget Sound, development churns eastward into the Cascade Mountains. When Seattle-area residents leave for a weekend getaway, their most accessible open space lies straight out Interstate 90 as it crosses eastward over Snoqualmie Pass.

National forests along this corridor offer virtually limitless recreation, with day hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail, winter sports at four ski areas and cross-country tracks of Snoqualmie Pass, mountain biking along old railroad grades at Iron Horse State Park - even a quarter-mile nature trail through the Asahel Curtis stand of old-growth forest in the highway's median strip.

The Cascades hold many public preserves, anchored by North Cascades National Park and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to the north and, to the south, the famous trio of volcanoes protected in national parks and wilderness areas - Mounts Rainier, Adams and St. Helens. But if the recreational opportunities and biological integrity of the Cascades are to be preserved, one crucial gap remains - a 40-mile swath on both sides of I-90 called the Cascade Checkerboard.

The Checkerboard, beginning barely 30 minutes from Seattle along I-90, has its origins in the 1800s, when Congress gave transcontinental railroads alternating mile-square sections on both sides of their rights of way. Today, timber companies own most of the old railroad sections paralleling the highway, and travelers see a mosaic of beauty and degradation, native forest followed by mile-square clear-cuts logged in the 1980s. The clear-cuts appear plainly in satellite photos from space.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

The fourth threatened land is Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the largest roadless area east of the Rockies, 1.1 million acres in a 5-million-acre ecosystem of lakes and forests. More than 200,000 visitors a year rack up more than 1 million user-days, making Boundary Waters our most heavily used designated wilderness. It is also our only large lakeland wilderness and our most compromised .

Motorboats can use one-fourth of the BWCA water surface, a compromise struck in 1978 during the epic conservation battle over the Boundary Waters Wilderness legislation. Now, two members of Minnesota's congressional delegation want to increase motorized use and reinstate trucks hauling across several portages.

It's hard for Americans who live near public lands to take the long view regarding preservation and conservation. It's easy for them to think of public lands as their personal domain. Yet overwhelming percentages of Minnesotans, even in the BWCA congressional district, support increasing or maintaining BWCA protection. The pro-motor caucus sees their issue as a symbol of government intrusion just as conservationists see drawing the line against more motors as a symbol of wilderness.

Grand Staircase/Escalante

Virtually all of southern Utah is national-park quality, a geological and ecological wonderland. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument proclaimed by President Clinton in September 1996 consists of 1.7 million acres of canyons and plateaus connecting Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Each side-canyon guides hikers through slots inside the Earth where maidenhair fern grows and the trills of canyon wrens echo. Travelers can reach these wonders within a mile of existing roads.

Monument designation effectively blocks the biggest threat, a huge coal mine proposed since the 1970s on the isolated Kaiparowits Plateau in the center of the region. Small oil-exploring wells have been permitted in the last year, and Conoco wants to continue drilling.

Oil exploration brings road building, whether or not wildcatters ever find oil. Jayne Belnap, canyon country ecologist, says flatly that fragmentation from road building is the greatest threat to the ecological integrity of southern Utah. Tourist roads pose much the same threat as mine roads.

Clinton entrusted the Bureau of Land Management with this national monument, the only one so managed. Preserving the ecological integrity of the monument is a new job for the agency, which traditionally attends to grazing and mining. The forces of development will test its resolve to stand firm for conservation.

For Information

* The Wilderness Society, 900 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006; 202-833-2300, or www.wilderness.org/standbylands/ten_intro.htm.

* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Federal Building and Courthouse, Box 20, 101 12th Ave., Fairbanks, Alaska 99701; 907-456-0250; outfitters: www.gorp.com/gorp/resource/us_nwr/ak_arcti.htm; conservation information: www.mosquitonet.com/ (TILDE)naec/refuge/html/refuge.htm.

* Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Route 1, Box 74, Tulelake, Calif. 96134; 916-667-2231.

* For details on visiting the Cascade Checkerboard, contact: Snoqualmie National Forest Supervisor, 21905 64th Ave. W., Mountainlake Terrace, Wash. 98043; 425-775-9702; www.wiredweb.com/(TILDE)mbs/; Wenatchee National Forest Supervisor, 215 Melody Lane, Wenatchee, Wash. 98801; 509-662-4335; ww.naturenw.org/forest/wen/index.html. In Seattle, watch for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust's brochure guide to the I-90 Greenway corridor, or contact Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, 506 Second Ave., Suite 1502, Seattle, Wash. 98104; 206-382-5565.

* Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Avenue Place, Duluth, Minn. 55808; 218-626-4300; conservation issues: www.friends-bwca.org; outfitters: www.ely.org/bus_outfitters.html.

* Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 337 S. Main, Suite 010, Cedar City, Utah 84720; 435-865-5100; www.ut.blm.gov/monument.

Stephen Trimble is a Salt Lake City naturalist, writer and photographer.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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