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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ah, Wilderness!

Air Date: Week of

Virginia wilderness advocate Mark Miller views ridges he hopes will soon be added to the nation's wilderness system.

A bill put together by a bipartisan group in Congress, and supported by President Bush, would set aside more wilderness areas nationwide this year than have been protected in the past five years combined. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports from one area slated for conservation, the Shawver Run wilderness in Virginia.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. IÂ’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. President Bush doesnÂ’t score high marks on environmentalistsÂ’ report cards. And congress doesnÂ’t do much better. But with just a few months left to his term, the president and lawmakers are trying to create an environmental legacy. Living on EarthÂ’s Jeff Young hit the trail to learn more.


YOUNG: Wilderness advocate Mark Miller leads me through Virginia’s Shawver’s Run wilderness to a rocky outcrop he says has one of the region’s most spectacular views. Now, I grew up in the mountains. So I’ve got pretty high standards when it comes to pretty scenery. But when we reach the cliff, I have to admit—he’s right.

YOUNG: Oh yeah. That’s—that’s pretty.

MILLER: Yes this is what you’d call a million-dollar view. It’s just a series of sharp ridges with very narrow valleys—and from the mountain we have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven ridges that we can see from this location.


YOUNG: The view also represents seven years of work by Miller and others with the advocacy group, Campaign for America’s Wilderness. That’s how long it’s taken to get the aptly named Virginia Ridge and Valley Wilderness bill before Congress. Fifteen hundred acres of the wooded slopes we see here would become wilderness, as would another 42 thousand acres in other counties—the biggest such land conservation measure in Virginia in 20 years.

Much of that acreage only made it in the bill after long negotiations with county officials; bear hunters who wanted hunters with disabilities to be able to drive into the brush, and mountain bikers who jealously protect their trail access.

MILLER: Yeah, we worked with the mountain bike community in some places, we worked with the horse community in others, and we worked with hunters in other communities.

Virginia wilderness advocate Mark Miller views ridges he hopes will soon be added to the nation's wilderness system.

YOUNG: And, I guess that meant from a hardcore wilderness standpoint you had to give up a little bit.

MILLER: Yeah we had to make compromises but I think that the end result was that we had a bill that a lot of people could support and you try and ram something through the local community and youÂ’re dead before you even get started.

YOUNG: The work paid off. The bill held together through committee debate in congress and is now part of a package of wilderness proposals from other states, including West Virginia, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon.

Campaign for AmericaÂ’s Wilderness executive director Mike Matz says Congress could create more new wilderness areas this year than it has in the previous five years combined.

MATZ: There are about a dozen of them that seem incredibly viable this year that could make it to presidentÂ’s desk.

YOUNG: WhatÂ’s going on, why all these all of a sudden?

MATZ: Well it was kind of nice timing I think. Many of these things had been sort of percolating through, then all of a sudden stars aligned. TheyÂ’d gotten the support on the local level that they needed and the leadership changed and the leadership definitely is more favorable towards these sorts of things. ItÂ’s been less of a rocky row to hoe to get them done.

YOUNG: When Republicans controlled Congress, California Representative Richard Pombo controlled the House Resources Committee, which considers wilderness proposals. In 2004, this was how Pombo explained his opposition to a proposal for Washington stateÂ’s Wild Sky Wilderness, which would have included some areas with a few old roads and culverts.

POMBO: I believe wilderness is a very special status of protection that we have as a tool to protect land. It is not something that anyone ever imagined that we would be including roads and bridges and dams and developed areas and try to call them wilderness.

YOUNG: Pombo blocked the Wild Sky proposal three times. But in the 2006 elections Pombo lost, Democrats took control of Congress, and West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall became chair of what he renamed the Natural Resources Committee. And this year the Wild Sky Wilderness became law.

RAHALL: I think the reason is a difference in philosophy. A lot of these are republican wilderness bills, they never could see light of day when that party was in control of this committee. Maybe they viewed it as locking up or preventing development. Under my leadership I think they have deserved to be recognized and passed and we have done that.

YOUNG: Rahall says a bipartisan approach to wilderness is important, and the proposals that succeed are those with strong local support across party lines.
Which brings us back to Virginia and Mark Miller.


YOUNG: We take a break not far from the Brush Mountain section of the Appalachian Trail, another area on the verge of wilderness protection, and we skip some stones in CraigÂ’s creek.

[SKIPPING STONES: “ooh good one! That’s hard to beat!”]

YOUNG: The community near here is very conservative and not inclined to like big government telling them what they can and canÂ’t do in the forest. It might have seemed Miller had an uphill battle here at Brush Mountain.

MILLER: But the word ‘conservation’ is root to ‘conservative’ and these folks wanted the land behind their homes conserved.


YOUNG: Miller knew people in the area were also concerned that a proposed high voltage power line might come through here - something a wilderness designation could keep at bay. That helped him turn local skeptics into ardent supporters.

MILLER: A lot of times what folks in local communities say is ‘We want it just the way it is.’ One of the ways to make something stay just the way that it is, is to give it a wilderness designation. We’ll be long gone, but it will still be here.

YOUNG: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For this little corner of the world that preservation is nearly here.

For Living on Earth, IÂ’m Jeff Young in VirginiaÂ’s Jefferson National Forest.



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