nation's wilderness system thriving
IDYLLWILD ---- The nation's
wilderness system is turning 40.
Sept. 3 marks the birthday of the Wilderness Act,
the landmark federal law that President Lyndon B.
Johnson signed and created a system of 9 million
acres of mountain, forest and canyon preserves
shielded from urban development, road building and
But four decades later,
the system of preserves the law gave birth to is
hardly on the decline. On the contrary, the
treasure trove of unspoiled nature is even more
vibrant than it was in its youth.
Today the country's
wilderness network is 12 times as large as it was
in 1964 and has spread from the original 13 states
to more than three times that many. At 106 million
acres spread across 44 states, the nation's 662
wilderness areas cover a territory the size of
And the system is still growing. For example, a
major addition is proposed for North San Diego
California alone has 130 wilderness areas. They
cover 14 million acres, or 13 percent of the
Golden State's sun-splashed lands. Both numbers
are the highest in any state outside Alaska.
California also had a dozen of the original 54
wilderness areas, and they remain under a blanket
of legal protection today. Three are in the
recreational back yard of 20 million Southern
Californians: the heavily forested San Jacinto
Wilderness next to Idyllwild in Riverside County,
the alpine San Gorgonio Wilderness near Big Bear
in San Bernardino County, and the rugged Cucamonga
Wilderness north of Ontario, also in San
"I think it's a national treasure," Deborah Long
of Orange said of the wilderness system, while
preparing to trek up into the San Jacinto
Wilderness via popular Devils Slide Trail last
week. "It's something we want to preserve for
generations beyond us."
The system also has proven to be an effective tool
for rescuing imperiled animal and plant species,
particularly in Southern California, where the
convergence of sea, mountains and desert has
wrought one of the most diverse and biologically
rich landscapes in the world, said Monica Bond, a
biologist with the Center for Biological
Diversity, an environmental group based in
Bond called the 40th birthday "great cause for
The relief valve
Also in the mood to celebrate is Geoffrey Smith,
San Diego regional organizer for the California
Wild Heritage Campaign to add more California
lands to the system, including some in San Diego
and Riverside counties.
"(Wilderness) is a pressure-relief valve," Smith
said. "People need a place to go to get away from
society, to rejuvenate. Thank goodness for the
vision the early founders of the wilderness
Generally speaking, the system works like this: No
cars, off-road vehicles, bicycles, roads, mines,
cabins, ski runs or logging operations are
permitted in a federally designated wilderness
The law defines such an area this way: "A
wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man
and his own works dominate the landscape, is
hereby recognized as an area where the earth and
its community of life are untrammeled by man,
where man himself is a visitor who does not
The human visitor is limited to entering and
leaving on foot or horseback.
Some say the rules are unnecessarily restrictive
because they penalize certain classes of people,
such as the disabled, who are physically unable to
hike into the steep backcountry, and off-road
enthusiasts who prefer to trek through the forests
and deserts on wheels.
"I don't think that's fair to the families who
enjoy the forests in their four-wheel-drives,"
said Jan McGarvie, legislative director for the
San Diego Off-Road Coalition.
"Our public lands should be opened to all of us."
Smith, likening wilderness to a management tool,
suggested that the rules do not penalize groups
but provide needed protection for places whose
character would be compromised by cars and trucks.
"There is an appropriate tool for everything,"
Smith said. "You wouldn't use a hammer to insert a
screw. There are places where four-wheel-drive
vehicles are inappropriate. That's just the
Forest, chaparral and desert
Smith also suggests some off-roaders are missing
"It's not about recreation," he said. "It's about
habitat protection. It's about protecting our open
space lands for their own sake. It's about
preserving species, preserving watersheds."
Smith said he loves to tool through the forest in
his four-wheel-drive Jeep as much as anyone else.
But, he said, "I don't feel a need to drive my
vehicle everywhere, no more than I feel like I
should be able to fly to the moon."
As for the notion that wilderness rules prevent
disabled people from enjoying the backcountry,
Bond said many scenic places in forests and
national parks are reachable by car.
Driving around urban Southern California, one
might not think there are many places nearby that
are "untrammeled by man." But there are in fact
several local roadless lands in the wilderness
One of the most popular is the San Jacinto
Wilderness of Riverside County, covering 32,000
acres of federal and state lands. Several trails
lead into the area from the rustic resort town of
Idyllwild; another trail reaches out to it from
the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Covered with pine and fir forests and strewn with
white granite boulders, the San Jacinto Mountains
call to mind areas of the Sierra Nevada. The
wilderness boasts one of Southern California's
most sought-after rope-climbing challenges on
The preserve near Idyllwild also is home to one of
Southern California's highest mountains,
10,804-foot San Jacinto Peak, which offers
sweeping views of the desert, western Riverside
County and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.
But wilderness is not limited to high mountains.
On the spine of the Riverside-Orange county line,
the 38,000-acre San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is an
example of a low-elevation environment preserved
in its natural state, despite its proximity to the
booming Temecula-Murrieta area and highly
developed Orange County. San Mateo is known for
groves of majestic live oaks, sycamore-lined
streams and chaparral-carpeted hills.
To the southeast, 16,000-acre Agua Tibia
Wilderness along the northern slopes of Palomar
Mountain offers a mix of dry chaparral and conifer
stands that shelter rare Mexican spotted owls.
Every 10 years
Thanks to the California Desert Protection Act of
1994, one may also visit unspoiled places across
the Mojave that remain much as they were when
European explorers passed by a century and a half
ago in search of gold. At nearly 700,000 acres,
the Mojave Wilderness is one of the largest in
The desert addition pointedly illustrates a trend.
About every 10 years, there has been a major push
to boost the Golden State's wilderness inventory.
After the initial christening of 1 million acres
of preserves in 1964, other areas were protected
in 1974-76, including Agua Tibia, and several more
were added in 1984, San Mateo being one of them.
Then there was the big desert expansion of 1994.
Now, in 2004, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat
from the San Francisco Bay Area, is carrying
legislation that would expand California's
14-million-acre system by 2.4 million acres.
Near Ramona in North San Diego County, the bill
would carve a 24,000-acre wilderness out of the
San Diego River Gorge, Eagle Peak and stunning
Cedar Creek Falls ---- near the ignition point of
last fall's devastating Cedar fire, the largest
wildfire in California history.
Boxer's California Wild Heritage Act, which is
designated S.1555, would provide protection for
the San Diego River and Cedar Creek, in declaring
several miles of their waters to be "wild and
scenic rivers," and consequently ineligible for
dams and water diversion projects.
"We kind of consider the Eagle Peak complex to be
the crown jewel because it has so many great
wilderness qualities and it is so close to a major
metropolitan area," Smith, of the wilderness
campaign, said. "In one hour from your office in
downtown San Diego, you can be walking into
thousands of acres of pristine roadless public
land, with hawks soaring above, 100-foot
waterfalls flowing into pools of cool water and
steep, rugged slopes leading to majestic peaks
The bill also proposes to create a new 8,000-acre
wilderness along the South Fork of the San Jacinto
River near Idyllwild, and to pad the 95,000-acre
San Gorgonio Wilderness with 18,000 acres of
additions. One of the original 1964 preserves, the
latter is home to San Gorgonio Mountain, which at
11,502 feet is the highest point in Southern
California and the birthplace of two rivers, the
Santa Ana and Whitewater.
Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (951)
676-4315, Ext. 2616, or