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

The Wilderness Act at Thirty-Five

Air Date: Week of

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the landmark Wilderness Act. America's wilderness system has grown from 9 million acres of public lands in 1964 to more than 100 million today, and citizens groups in western states are identifying still more acreage they feel should be given protection. One group that's leading the movement is the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Its Executive Director, Mike Matz, talks to host Steve Curwood about wilderness politics and his favorite wild place.


CURWOOD: Today, we mark the 35th anniversary of a landmark law of the land, or to be more precise, wild and open space. In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in September 1964.

JOHNSON: This is a very happy and historic occasion for all who love the great American outdoors. And that, needless to say, includes me. The Wilderness Bill preserves for posterity, for all time to come, nine million acres of this vast continent in their original and unchanging beauty and wonder.

CURWOOD: What began as a nine-million-acre conservation experiment has grown into a system of more than 100 million acres. The law defines wilderness as, quote, "An area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Wilderness designation means no roads, no buildings, no motorized vehicles, and no activities like logging or oil drilling. In the last decade, though, the pace of wilderness designation has slowed. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is one of several organizations now pushing for more Federal wild lands. Michael Matz is its Executive Director, and he says Congress has been unreceptive. He also gives poor marks to the Clinton Administration.

MATZ: I would say that the Clinton Administration probably gets a D in this arena. They in Utah designated the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a 1.7 million acre preserve in the southern part of the state, and did preclude a coal mine from being developed there. They also, early on in the Administration, signed into law the California Desert Protection Act, which did add about eight million acres to the national wilderness preservation system. But they certainly need to do more, and I think that they could focus more on the Forest Service lands and more on the BLM lands in the remaining time that they have.

CURWOOD: Today there is about 100 million acres of designated wilderness in this country. It's not enough, you say. How much would be enough?

MATZ: I think conservationists from The Wilderness Society on down to the regional groups are taking a look at perhaps as much as another 200 million acres.

CURWOOD: So to triple the size of our present wilderness area.

MATZ: That would certainly be the ideal. If we are able to do that, it would be the cat's meow.

CURWOOD: Now, some people say that if you give an area a wilderness designation, it can be like the kiss of death because it attracts more people to the area. Do these areas need to be protected from people as much as they need to be protected from economic activities, including mining, logging, ranching, that sort of thing?

MATZ: It is true that once you tap an area as a wilderness area, that draws lines around a map and people tend to have an interest in visiting those places. But really, in the larger scheme of things, the threat from increased use like that pales in comparison to oil development or coal mining or pummeling by off-road vehicle use.

CURWOOD: Groups like the Wilderness Act Reform Coalition in Idaho and the Blue Ribbon Coalition are contesting wilderness designation proposals. They don't want off-road motorized recreation prohibited in any more areas. Do you really want to limit so many people's access to the wilderness?

MATZ: It's a matter of balance, Steve. I think that if people take a look at the scales, they'll find that the areas that are open already to off-road vehicle use far exceed the areas that are protected from that kind of excessive use. For instance, in Utah, we're asking that about nine million acres of the 22 million acres, or less than half of it, be designated as wilderness. That means that the majority would still be open, and is still open, to off-road vehicle use, to coal mining, to oil and gas development, and all the kinds of activities that admittedly we need. So, it's not so much that we're trying to keep people out; it's that we're trying to make sure that there is enough opportunity for people who like solitude, who want more primitive type of recreational opportunities, to have those opportunities as well.

CURWOOD: Surveys do show that wilderness preservation is very popular. One survey we've seen found that almost 90 percent of U.S. citizens want to protect special lands right now. Who are these people who are joining your organization now?

MATZ: It's interesting. I think that more of the suburban types who have to commute long distances to their job and spend a lot of time along the roadways and see 7-11s or shopping malls or automobile dealerships pop up along the roadside and eat away at the fruit orchards or the horse pastures. I think it's largely been a lot of those people who have decided this is an important issue that we should save as a legacy for those who follow us some natural places. The places that are un-roaded, that don't have development.

CURWOOD: Could you briefly describe for us one of your favorite places in the wilderness?

MATZ: (Laughs) There is a place. I don't really want to name it because I don't want to highlight it (Curwood laughs). But there is a place down in southern Utah, along the border between Arizona and Utah. It's a wonderful plateau that you can hike a fairly grueling couple of hours to get up through a fairly narrow canyon. But once you're up on top, it's just this unbelievable mixture of red, slick rock, swirling patterns in the rock, and Ponderosa pines. And you just feel like you're in the top of the world, and it's a magical place. It really is. I visited it last March with some folks, and we actually endured a snowstorm that just added to the beauty, because you so rarely see the desert blanketed in snow and snow melting, running in rivulets down some of the sand washes. It was just a gorgeous, gorgeous setting, and I think that, you know, you come away from an experience like that being refreshed and renewed.

CURWOOD: And we won't get the name of it today, huh?

MATZ: Not today.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Michael Matz is Executive Director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He joined us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City. Thank you very much, sir.

MATZ: Steve, thank you very much.



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