Five areas besieged by our 'civilization' Heritage: Time could be running out for some of this country's untamed corners.

August 02, 1998|By Stephen Trimble | Stephen Trimble,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everyday wildness nourishes us like good bread, while true wilderness remains - for most of us - a place we may go only occasionally, or never at all. But just knowing it's there is a reassuring part of our reality, and we rest easier with the sense that such places exist.

When the Wilderness Society listed America's most endangered wild lands last year, they were most concerned with the value of these places as reservoirs of wildness. These places rank at the top because of their natural resources, national significance and immediate threats to their integrity.

As destinations, they are not just for hard-body adventurers. Ordinary people with a simple love of wild places can enjoy them, too. And that's the best way to see how you feel about these areas: Visit them and decide for yourself if they're worth saving.

Ben Beach, Wilderness Society spokesman, says the entire staff discussed important places that face serious, imminent threats and decided on its list "without intense debate." He said he feels that five merit attention because of the breadth of their resources and the magnitude of the threats to them.

In the year since the list was issued, there has been one bright spot: The Whitney Estate in New York had been threatened by the subdivision of privately owned Adirondack forest, but that danger was eliminated when New York state bought the land; it is scheduled to open to the public this summer. Despite that victory, "The cold reality is that the threats to these five special places won't evaporate overnight," says Rindy O'Brien, the Wilderness Society's vice president for public policy. "We are prepared for a drawn-out struggle."

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Devotees of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - an intact ecosystem covering 19 1/2 million acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska - judge it the standard by which we should measure all other wilderness. The openness of the tundra inspires wonder on a huge scale.

The 1 1/2-million-acre coastal plain is the heart of the refuge - the nation's most important onshore polar-bear denning area and calving grounds for more than 150,000 caribou. One spiritual leader of the Gwich'in Indian people, who rely on these caribou for food, believes the coastal plain is too sacred for a Gwich'in even to visit. His prohibition doesn't extend to non-Gwich'in, but he would want all visitors to show respect.

Here, you have the chance to look a wolf in the eye, watch musk oxen corral to defend themselves, experience intimate encounters with arctic fox or caribou or the freedom of 24 hours of summer daylight.

But now, the prospect of finding oil here threatens the wildlife pageant of the coastal plain. Development would destroy it. Ironically, the Interior Department says there's a more than 80 percent chance that there is no oil at all. Even in hopeful projections, the refuge would provide a minimal amount of energy for the nation.

President Clinton has declared the Arctic Refuge off-limits for drilling. His veto threat will last only as long as his administration. Conservationists hope Congress will designate the coastal plain as wilderness (in addition to the 8 million acres of the refuge already so designated), permanently protecting the richness of this wild world.

Klamath Basin

The lower 48 equivalent of the Arctic Refuge's wildlife spectacle takes flight over the Klamath Basin, straddling the Oregon-California border, perhaps the greatest concentration of migratory waterfowl on the continent.

On a given spring or fall day at one of the six wildlife refuges here, you can see a million ducks, geese and swans. You can renew the relationship humans have with other animals simply by rising early in your motel in Tulelake, Calif., or Klamath Falls, Ore., and driving to one of the refuges for sunrise.

In fall, if you stand at the edge of the marsh, 100,000 snow geese circle above you, their booming and crying thundering in the sky. The largest lower-48 concentration of bald eagles fishes and roosts on the lakeshores in the winter; you may see 100 eagles at once. And in spring, sandhill cranes dance and bow and fill the marshes with their warbling rounds of basso music.

Klamath Basin runs from Crater Lake National Park, Ore., south to Lava Beds National Monument, Calif. It includes the six refuges, five wilderness areas, four national forests, one national grassland and views to the snowy cone of Mount Shasta.

The competition for water poses a serious threat. Today's Klamath Basin, with its millions of birds, is astonishing enough; it's hard to imagine the place before the Bureau of Reclamation began diverting basin water for agricultural purposes in 1906. Since then, wildlife habitat has dropped 75 percent and bird numbers 80 percent in this Everglades of the West.

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