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At 40, 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 mining.

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 California.

And the system is still growing. For example, a major addition is proposed for North San Diego County.

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 Bernardino County.

"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 Idyllwild.

Bond called the 40th birthday "great cause for celebration."

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 movement had."

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 area.

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 remain."

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." McGarvie said.

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 reality."

Forest, chaparral and desert

Smith also suggests some off-roaders are missing the point.

"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 system.

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 Tahquitz Rock.

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 California.

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 above."

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 ddowney@californian.com.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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