It took mere minutes before I was out of earshot of the parking lot and into the light-dappled pine forest. I noticed footprints in the wet earth as I followed a trail up switchbacks carved into the mountainside, but I didn’t see a soul. Between the bare trees to the northeast shone Trout Lake and Yellow Mountain, its craggy, snow-dusted peak iridescent in the midmorning sun. Soon I encountered early-fall snow myself — a foot of it. Slowly, on this nine-mile hike to the base of Lizard Head, one of Colorado’s most challenging mountains, I became wild like my surroundings. I slogged through snow, my pant legs wet to my knees. I lost the trail and regained it. I slipped off the edge of a hillside while navigating mud-smeared rocks. I reached the road at sunset, my feet blistered, throat parched, stomach empty, soul happy.
This is the Lizard Head Wilderness, 10 miles outside Telluride, Colo., a rugged and pristine spot that in 1980 was designated a “wilderness area.” It takes an act of Congress to garner this designation, the highest form of protection for federally owned public lands.
Wilderness areas don’t have to be completely untouched by humanity. Established grazing can continue, as can sustainable hunting and angling. But no industries can mine resources, and no motorized or mechanized activities are allowed: no mountain bikes, dirt bikes, ATVs, or snowmobiles, though there is an exception for wheelchairs. U.S. presidents, congressmen and land-management agencies like the Forest, National Park, and Fish and Wildlife Services can recommend tracts of wildernessworthy land to Congress, but it’s often citizens armed with GPS units, cameras and gumption who identify areas that fit the official designation established by the Wilderness Act of 1964. (They should be at least 5,000 acres; and “the imprint of man’s work [should be] substantially unnoticeable.”) And frequently, disparate groups like hunters, environmentalists and small-business owners come together to sponsor a wilderness bill. In the process, they’re discovering an oft-forgotten truth: When people realize exactly what wilderness means, they’re almost always in favor of it.
“Not only is wilderness public land that a variety of people can use, it’s something that politicians from different sides of the aisle can agree on,” says Jon Owen, a government-affairs representative representative with the nonprofit Campaign for America’s Wilderness
. There’s no doubt that President George W. Bush is not a chum of conservationists, but preserving wilderness is one environmental issue to which he is amenable. Mostly because of the persistence of bipartisan wilderness supporters, Bush has signed nine wilderness bills, adding 1.4 million acres to the 105.2 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Since last October those designations have included the dry grasslands of the Ojito Wilderness in New Mexico, the tropical forests of El Toro Wilderness in Puerto Rico, and the 100,000-acre Cedar Mountain Wilderness in Utah.
Having access to nature lets us find solitude and remember who we are against a backdrop that changes cyclically and predictably. We all have places — a stream with a mossy rock perfect for snoozing, a knobby lookout with an old oak for shade, a sunstruck wildflower meadow — that etch themselves into our consciousness. For many of us, these areas are wilderness, literally and spiritually. Being there, or simply knowing they exist, is both comforting and exhilarating.
But we also need wilderness to survive in a tangible way. More than 60 percent of the U.S. population gets its drinking water from rivers that run through forests, according to the EPA. Trees filter pollutants and absorb carbon dioxide: according to American Forests, trees in Washington, D.C., absorb 878,000 pounds of chemicals each year. Wilderness can help fuel rural economies, too. A 1995 U.S. Forest Service study found that national forests generate $125 billion a year, 75 percent of which is recreation based.
“The importance that our society places on wildlife, on open spaces, on clean air, on clean water — those values are not weakening, they’re getting stronger,” says Matt Skroch, executive director of Arizona’s Sky Island Alliance
, which has proposed the Coronado National Forest’s Tumacacori Highlands as wilderness. “There’s a growing desire to protect these places.” The five locations depicted in the following pages are poised to become our country’s next great wilderness areas. Take your spouse, your partner, your kids or go alone. Fight for these areas, support them, but most importantly, enjoy them.
To learn how to support local wilderness campaigns, contact your state-based conservation organization or a national group like the Wilderness Society (800-843-9453, wilderness.org), which works to protect wild areas through scientific research and advocacy, or the Campaign for America’s Wilderness (202-544-3691, leaveitwild.org), which helps people develop successful wilderness petitions.
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Wild, wild west: Tumacori Highlands in Arizona
Southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest lies where the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the Colorado Plateau and the Sierra Madre Occidental meet. Within it are the Tumacacori Highlands, a bewitching land of madrean oak forests, rocky peaks, and mesquite-and-scrub grasslands. Coronado likely explored here in the 16th century on his search for the seven cities of gold; Apaches roamed the high mountains; and in the 17th century Catholics started the country’s first mission not far from the current art colony of Tubac. It’s also rumored that Jesuit priests stashed billions of dollars worth of gold and treasure somewhere in these mountains. Today the area is a haven for plentiful, diverse, and rare wildlife, including the parrotlike elegant trogon, the Mexican vine snake and the Chiricahua leopard frog. Even jaguars, which were thought to be extinct in these parts, have been spotted in the last decade.
The Tumacacori’s historical, cultural and natural cachet explain why a group of local citizens and conservation organizations have banded together to campaign for 84,000 of its acres to be labeled as wilderness. “There are beautiful lookouts, high mountains with cliffs, and some wonderful peaks,” says Ellie Kurtz, 75, a local resident who has lived on a ranch near the north boundary of the proposed wilderness area for 30 years. Conservationists are concerned that rapid development may threaten Tumacacori: Arizona is the secondfastest-growing state in the nation. What’s more, a local utility company has proposed running a 345-kilovolt power line through the area to assuage power outages in Nogales; such construction might disqualify the area from receiving a wilderness designation. Next up? Proponents are looking to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to introduce legislation this year.
It’s well worth the 1,500-foot climb to Atascosa Lookout, the old fire tower north of Nogales where Edward Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, spent the summer of 1968. On the fourmile round-trip hike from the trailhead off Ruby Road, you’ll have unobstructed views of starkly beautiful desertscapes, including Baboquivari Peak to the west, the rugged spires of Sycamore Canyon to the south, and the Santa Rita Mountains to the east. Some say that on a clear day you can even see Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Come evening, stake a campsite at the secluded Pena Blanca Campground, about three miles from the trailhead. Southern Arizona’s mild weather and cloudless skies mean you’ll have orchestra seats to some of the country’s best stargazing. Spot Scorpius or Sagittarius, or, in August, count the Perseids as they prance across the sky. The next day, angle for bass and bluegill in nearby Pena Blanca Lake, which abuts the proposed wilderness area and is flanked by views of the Atacosa cliffs and 1,000-foot canyon bluffs.
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Natural treasures: California's northern coastline
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, more than 20 California county supervisors, wineries, ranches, timber companies, Native American tribes, and church groups support a wilderness bill, you’d imagine Capitol Hill would take notice. In the case of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, also known as the North Coast Wilderness Bill, that’s exactly what happened. With the help of numerous public meetings and input from citizens, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) painstakingly adjusted boundaries and drafted legislation agreeable to diverse Californians. As of press time, the bill had passed the Senate and was awaiting a House vote. It will potentially designate 14 different areas of Northern California’s public lands — more than 300,000 acres — as wilderness, including parts of the Mendocino and Six River National Forest and the Black Butte River. In addition to dozens of species of wildflowers, animals like the Chinook salmon, bald eagle, Roosevelt elk, and goshawk find havens in these rugged landscapes. Cedar Roughs in Napa County is home to one of the last wild black bear populations in the state and the biggest grove of rare Sargent cypress in the world. In King Range, you’ll find the Lost Coast, which is the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the United States outside Alaska. The second-largest bald eagle population in California spends the winter in the proposed 30,870-acre Cache Creek Wilderness.
During the 21-mile, two-day raft ride on Cache Creek, both the Class III rapids and the scenery — bald eagles, elk, and steep volcanic canyon walls — will vie for your attention. You can also easily spend four days exploring the sand, pebble, and boulder beaches of Lost Coast Trail in the proposed King Range Wilderness; there are a total of 25 rough-hewn miles of highway-free shoreline. For a day trip try the four-mile Bug Creek Trail in the proposed Mad River Buttes Wilderness, where views of the Pacific and the Trinity Alps await.
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Lewis and Clark country: Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon
There's no doubt that parts of the 1,067,043-acre Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon deserve wilderness designation; the question is how much of it will get that label. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who introduced legislation into the Senate in 2004, would like to see 177,000 of the forest’s acres allocated as wilderness. Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who introduced legislation in late March, proposed 77,500 acres. And according to the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), 261,000 acres are worthy of the designation. The forest is home to Douglas fir trees that are up to 300 feet tall and as wide as station wagons, as well as at-risk wildlife like the northern spotted owl. Its rivers supply water to more than a quarter of Oregon’s residents. Wolverines, deer, and elk walk the high ridges, lush forests, and meadows packed with lupines and balsamroot. But best of all, the area is only an hour’s drive from Portland, offering outstanding recreation to millions of city dwellers. And more than 4 million people take advantage of it each year. “When you get out there, you feel like you’re in a sanctuary,” says Leslie Logan, a schoolteacher in the greater Portland area, who has visited the forest with her Quaker group and her two sons. “It’s rich and green. It’s this incredibly pristine place. How much do we have left that we can still call wild?” In the next year or so, perhaps a bit less: according to the ONRC, parts of the forest may be leased to timber companies, and the logging could render the areas unworthy of wilderness designation. Nature enthusiasts are hopeful that the legislation Representatives Walden and Blumenauer just introduced will help stave off this development.
Explore some of the proposed wilderness area’s old-growth forests, raging rivers and toothy peaks by means of sustainable, human-powered travel. Bite off a threeday, 30-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at Lolo Pass. You’ll hike through the Hatfield Wilderness area before reaching the Columbia River Gorge, which is rife with dramatic cliffs and waterfalls. Or opt for a one-day raft trip down the Class II-III rapids of the upper Clackamas River, which cuts through the proposed wilderness area and is flanked by steep, green hillsides and basalt cliffs. You’ll spot ospreys, falcons, herons, and the occasional otter along the way.
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Gold mine: The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia
At the end of the 19th century West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest was logged so extensively that the nearby Ohio River flooded. Today the so-called Mon has rebounded: its 919,000 acres grow rhododendrons and orchids along with red spruce, oak, maple, hickory, black locust, sassafras and white pine. Within these lush forests, black bears, deer, beaver, northern goshawks, and wild turkeys roam freely, and trout fill the streams. No more than a day’s drive away for one-third of the country’s population, the Mon is considered a valuable attraction, especially because the East Coast harbors less than 4 percent of the country’s wilderness. “In the east there aren’t many places where there’s this much natural land, where you can have solitude and no intrusions of noise or human development,” says Beth Little, 67, a former consultant who has lived in the area for 30 years. “It’s really precious, and we’ve got to protect it.” In 2002, others who felt similarly began the process of identifying the wilderness-worthy portions of the forest. And in 2004 the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition officially proposed 143,000 acres. The Mon already houses five wilderness areas, but it’s not surprising that locals want to protect more of the land. Some timber companies oppose any additional legislation, but most residents and local businesses support it as a way to boost the state’s burgeoning tourism industry. West Virginia’s five members of Congress have decided to wait for recommendations from the Forest Service, anticipated in July or August, before drafting legislation to designate wilderness.
If you’re an angler, camp near trout-rich Seneca Creek and try your hand at catching dinner. For a day-hike, the 2.2-mile Blackbird Knob Trail boasts views of Cabin Mountain and the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Or take a long weekend and tackle the 24-mile North Fork Mountain Trail, where you could spot snowshoe hares, cottontails, Virginia northern flying squirrels, and Cheat Mountain salamanders. Even the eastern cougar is rumored to prowl the pines.
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Old Growth Glory: Mount Baker, Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington
At first the Wild Sky Wilderness Proposal, a call for the protection of 106,000 acres of Washington’s Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, was controversial because snowmobile users and seaplane pilots worried it would hinder their recreational use of the area. But after many compromises and modifications, the campaign is now supported by a diverse group of outdoor enthusiasts and more than 120 elected officials in Washington State. In a 2003 Senate committee hearing, the Bush administration agreed to sign the bill, which passed in the Senate last July and, at press time, was awaiting a House vote. Wild Sky would be the state’s first new national forest wilderness in more than 20 years. It would protect low-elevation forests, including statuesque old-growth Douglas fir and cedar, and it would be a blissful playground for wildlife like Northern spotted owls, pileated woodpeckers, pine marten, bald eagles, cougars, and deer. What’s more, the North Fork Skykomish River and its streams host some of the most plentiful stocks of wild steelhead, bull trout, coho, and king salmon in the Puget Sound area.
Take North Fork Skykomish Road to Troublesome Creek or Stairstep Hole, both perfect for steelhead angling. If you have more time, hike a four-day, 30-mile loop on the West Cady Ridge, Bald Eagle, Pacific Crest and Quartz Creek trails. You’ll walk along Bald Eagle Mountain’s ridge and among high meadows with wild orchids and lupine. You’ll be treated to views of the northern Cascades and Mount Baker, and you can camp in clearings. From the Bald Eagle trail, take a two-mile side trip to Blue Lake, a secluded, serene alpine lake. Day hikers can tromp with troops of Boy Scouts to Barclay Lake, dominated by the 3,000-foot sheer north face of Barclay Mountain.
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Story by Kate Siber. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2006.