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  September/October 1997 Features:
Hold Nothing Back
Heat Wave
Pockets of Paradise
 
  Departments:
Letters
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Good Going
Way to Go
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Home Front
Natural Resources
Last Words
 

Sierra Magazine
Pockets of Paradise

Abandon all vehicles, ye who enter here.

by Reed McManus

After crisscrossing the country in search of wide open spaces this summer, many Americans may be wondering where all their wilderness went. Minivan gridlock clogs Great Smoky Mountains National Park, even day visitors to Yosemite may soon need reservations, and 12,000 people a day descend upon the Grand Canyon seeking one of America's grandest natural experiences. Maybe the folks at Fleetwood Enterprises, a recreational-vehicle manufacturer in Milwaukee, have it right: these days "wilderness" can be just the name you slap on the back of a 30-foot travel trailer, a quaint image to ponder as you motor across the continent to invoke your very own Manifold Destiny.

Fortunately, we've got a law that says wilderness is something else entirely. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." The law's passage is one of those too-rare instances where car- and convenience-crazy Americans have shown themselves willing to take a backseat to the world around them and just enjoy the view.

While there are plenty of examples of designated wilderness areas that are being loved to death (see "Way to Go") and far too many cases where wilderness foes are blocking efforts to protect any more pristine lands, the National Wilderness Preservation System remains a bulwark against paving from sea to shining sea. Of 261 ecosystems in the United States, 157 are represented in a wilderness system that comprises 106 million acres, 5 percent of the country. Without these protected areas, efforts to preserve (and even understand) habitats and species would be virtually impossible. For Americans wondering what their continent was like before so much of it was plowed, paved, and plundered, wilderness is not just a haven but a history lesson.

What follows is a glimpse of some of the lesser-known wilderness areas across the United States. They're not big names, but they don't attract big crowds, either. What they offer is a chance to find solitude in landscapes that are primitive and timeless. Visit and enjoy them, or just be grateful knowing that they're there.

High in the Humboldt

The Jarbidge Wilderness is about as far as you can get-physically and spiritually--from Las Vegas without leaving the state of Nevada. Hard by the Idaho border, the wilderness area's alpine meadows, flowing streams, and glaciated, mountainous terrain surprise the traveler expecting Nevada's otherwise ubiquitous sagebrush. More than 125 miles of hiking trails lead to and around a series of 8,000-foot peaks. Three mountains above 10,000 feet are the headwaters for the Bruneau, Owyhee, and Salmon rivers, which flow north into the Columbia drainage. Established in 1964, the Jarbidge was the only federally designated wilderness in Nevada until 1989, when the Nevada Wilderness Act added 13 areas and expanded the Jarbidge from 65,000 to its present 113,000 acres. For more information, contact Humboldt National Forest, 2035 Last Chance Rd., Elko, NV 89801; (702) 738-5171.

Exploring an Oregon Gem

For years, wags have suggested that the only tree the U.S. Forest Service was willing to leave standing was the one on its official logo, and last year their fears were nearly confirmed. The salvage logging rider attached to a federal budget bill in 1995 allowed timber companies to run rampant through forests that environmentalists had worked for years to protect. Yet in the middle of the maelstrom, retiring Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) steered an altogether different sort of rider through the legislative process, managing to protect the largest unlogged watershed in western Oregon as the Opal Creek Wilderness. (Environmentalists wish that this friend of the timber industry had not waited until the eve of his retirement to see the value of standing trees.) The new 13,000-acre wilderness includes four hiking trails, gushing waterfalls, Opal Pool, and long-lived hemlock, Douglas fir, and Pacific yew. For more information, contact Willamette National Forest, Detroit Ranger District, HC 73, Box 320, Mill City, OR 97360; (503) 854-3366.

Wild in Texas

There is often immense pressure to develop recreational and tourist facilities within national parks. In Texas, however, more than half of Guadalupe Mountains National Park's 86,415 acres have been spared these amenities by designation as wilderness. In a sanctuary that encompasses Chihuahuan desert and conifer forest, you'll find 80 miles of hiking trails, rock formations with names like Devil's Hall and Hiker's Staircase, and Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet the highest in Texas. Guadalupe officials warn backcountry visitors that the park is relatively undeveloped and that many of the trails have not been "worked" to any significant degree--music to the ears of the wilderness seeker who equates national parks with parking lots. For more information, contact Guadalupe Mountains National Park, HC 60, Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847; (915) 828-3251.

Escape to the Allegheny Plateau

Proximity to major East Coast cities is fine for theme parks, but problematic for wildlands. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest is a good example: its 10,215 acres include spectacular heath barrens and wind-stunted red spruce at its (bug-free) higher elevations and northern hardwood forests and laurel thickets lower down--all well deserving of their protected status. But with only 5 percent of the nation's wilderness system outside the western states, you're sure to run into other seekers of wild places on a trip to a place like the Sods. (Without an act of Congress in 1975 allowing areas that had been settled or logged to be classified as wilderness, even fewer eastern acres would qualify for protection.) Still, the folks you'll meet on the trail are good ones, and the country is gorgeous. For more information, contact Monongahela National Forest, 200 Sycamore St., Elkins, WV 26241; (304) 636-1800.


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