updated 9/2/2004 3:01:45 PM ET 2004-09-02T19:01:45

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 on 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 pre-existing claims.

Republicans cautious about use
Rep. 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 don’t have widespread local support, cautions Pombo, R-Calif.

Another California Republican, Rep. 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 Thursday. “Where there’s the interest, I think they can be designated as long as they’re appropriate.”

Drilling angle
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 this fall might pass two proposals for new wilderness, 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, N.M.

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.”

200 million acres sought
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.

Nevada big under Bush administration
Nearly all the wilderness added during Bush’s presidency is in Nevada; 14,000 acres are in Colorado.

Supporters credit the law’s success to the power of a revolutionary, uniquely American idea — leaving future generations some of the last remaining wild areas, free from human design. Other countries have since mimicked it.

Utah author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams 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.”

“Those who wrote this legislation into being understood the crucial and subtle relationship between language and landscape,” Williams said. “How we speak about wild, open country is closely aligned with how we treat it. Open lands open minds.”

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