Protect more wilderness areas

This editorial appeared in The New York Times.

Congress has an opportunity to add significantly to the nation's store of protected wilderness — 1 million new acres at a minimum, and perhaps twice that if everything falls into place. But it must move quickly. This is an election year, with many other distractions, including an economic crisis and soaring fuel prices, and there is not a lot of time left to pass legislation.

So far, this Congress has passed one wilderness bill — setting aside more than 100,000 acres of clear streams, alpine peaks and old-growth forests in Washington. An additional 900,000 acres of potential wilderness in five states would be protected in a bill introduced in the Senate last month.

There are also a dozen other measures at various stages in the legislative process and these could conceivably push the total to 2 million.

Wilderness areas are more strictly protected than any other federal lands, including the national parks. Motorized transport and commerce are forbidden, hiking and fishing allowed. The wilderness system now covers about 107 million acres nationwide, about half of it in Alaska.

The Bush administration has mainly regarded public lands as a commercial asset, exploiting them for resources like natural gas. Still, President Bush has not discouraged Congress from making its own proposals, and he has indicated that he will sign bills that reach his desk. It is up to Congress to get them there.