WASHINGTON -- Forty years and 106 million acres after Congress decided the wilderness should not be spoiled by people, the law is such an icon that skeptics dare only try to slow its consequences.
Even President Bush has signed off on adding 529,604 acres at a time when environmentalists are attempting to use the Wilderness Act to block his pursuit of more oil and gas drilling and timbering on federal land.
Only Congress can designate wilderness, although the president has to sign laws doing it. The acreage added so far in Bush's tenure is the least of any president since Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act Sept. 3, 1964.
Motorized vehicles and equipment, such as chain saws, are prohibited in wilderness areas. Camping, hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, canoeing, and horseback riding are allowed; grazing livestock is generally allowed. Off-limits are mountain biking, commercial logging, road-building, oil and gas leasing, and mining, except for preexisting claims.
Representative Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, sends a form letter to colleagues who propose new areas. "Wilderness designations often result in lasting controversy and a sense of resentment" if they do not have widespread local support, cautions Pombo, Republican of California.
Another California Republican, Representative George Radanovich, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees wilderness, said the pace of adding to it "needs to be slowed down to keep some people from . . . abusing the intent of the law by keeping the public off public lands."
"We may be slowing it down, but I don't think there's the interest in cutting them off completely," Radanovich said yesterday. "Where there's the interest, I think they can be designated as long as they're appropriate."
Last year the Bush administration directed the Interior Department to quit barring oil and gas drilling on land proposed for wilderness but not yet designated by Congress. Since then, the department has issued oil and gas leases on tens of thousands of these acres, mainly in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Congress might pass two proposals for new wilderness this fall, Radanovich said. Those would create protections for nearly 770,000 acres around Lincoln County, Nev., and 11,000 acres dubbed the Ojito wilderness near Albuquerque. Nearly 5 percent of the nation is protected as wilderness, in what author Wallace Stegner, an admirer of Western landscapes, famously described as "the geography of hope."
Wildernesses range in size from 5-acre Pelican Island in Florida to 9-million-acre Wrangell-Saint Elias in Alaska. Only six states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island -- have none.
"It isn't a lockup forever, but these areas do have a padlock on them and Congress has the key," said Doug Scott, a Seattle environmentalist who wrote a history of the law. Part of the law's staying power, he said, is that "it was designed, most of all, to put the Congress in the driver's seat."
Few of the 114 bills signed by Johnson and successive presidents creating 663 wilderness areas around the nation have been tinkered with, and there never has been an attempt to undo a wilderness designation.
"The magic is it requires Congress, which in turn requires the citizenry, to be engaged. That's where it gets its power," said William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society.
His group believes another 200 million acres, much of it in Alaska, should be considered for wilderness protections.
Alaska already contains more than half the nation's designated wilderness, 58 million acres -- or about 16 percent of the state. California has 14 million wilderness acres, or 14 percent of the state.
Naturalist Terry Tempest Williams of Utah sees poetry in a law that defines wilderness 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."
"How we speak about wild, open country is closely aligned with how we treat it," Williams said. "Open lands open minds."