Group proposes wilderness designation for local areas
By TIM OMARZU
Paul Spitler made his first Sierra Nevada backpacking trip in the early 1990s near Castle Peak in eastern Nevada County.
“It was just spectacular. The maximum number of lakes for the minimum (amount) of mileage. It was just a great place for beginning backpackers,” said Spitler.
Now Spitler is leading a campaign that could make congressionally designated wilderness areas out of Castle Peak and up to 5 million to 6 million acres elsewhere in the state
He’s executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition, a Davis-based group that hopes to introduce federal legislation in 2000 or 2001 to set aside that much wild land.
“Once Congress designates an area as wilderness, it is forever wild – free of destructive logging, road building, off-road vehicles and mining that can scar the land for centuries,” reads literature for Wildlands 2000, the group’s campaign.
Wilderness designation is the best way to provide for the land’s long-term ecological health, protect countless imperiled wildlife species, and provide clean water for both fish and people, Spitler said.
The idea strikes a chord with leaders of Nevada County environmental groups.
But wilderness designation – which prohibits mechanical devices, such as bicycles – sounds ominous to some mountain bikers, off-road vehicle users and people who feel federal land should be open to logging, mining and grazing.
“What percentage of the county is already publicly owned? About one third. It seems to me that’s a sizable amount for the public to use,” said Margaret Urke, executive director of the Nevada County-based group California Association of Business Property and Resource Owners.
In Nevada County, the Wilderness Coalition identified Castle Peak and the popular Grouse Lakes area as good candidates for wilderness designation.
“They’re such splendid places. They’re crown jewels,” Spitler said.
Other potential Tahoe National Forest wildernesses identified by the group are the Lakes Basin area northeast of Downieville and in three areas near the upper forks of the American River.
Expanding the existing Granite Chief Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe also is proposed.
But creating new wilderness isn’t the job of the Forest Service; it’s done by Congress, Spitler said.
“This is going … straight to the policy-makers,” he said. “It’s really going to be the campaign of the environmental (movement) in California over the next five years.”
The Wilderness Coalition is counting on support from California’s two democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, as well as U.S. Representative George Miller.
Prior to introducing legislation, the group plans to hold public meetings for input and – where possible – redraw boundaries to avoid conflict with other users, such as mountain bikers, Spitler said. “That’s why we’re not rushing forward with legislation right away,” he said.
Meetings haven’t yet been scheduled in Nevada County.
Local Sierra Club members are likely to show support for new wilderness areas, said Barbara Rivenes, chairwoman of the club’s local Sierra Nevada Group.
“After all, in wildness is the preservation of the Earth,” Rivenes said.
Don Jacobson of the Forest Issues Group also supports wilderness designation, saying timber harvests are being planned in the Grouse Lakes area .
Downieville Chamber of Commerce member Dennis Alichwer was concerned about potential impact on mountain biking that the designation might have.
“This town definitely gets a lot of business from mountain biking,” he said.
Sierra County Supervisor Pat Whitley said, “Our county is 75 percent public lands; we can’t afford any more wilderness.”
The Wilderness Coalition used volunteers to help map potential wilderness areas, Spitler said. The group’s campaign was partly inspired by a similar effort in Utah, where volunteer activists identified a potential 9.1 million acres of wilderness on federal Bureau of Land Management land – three times as much as the BLM had identified.
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