IT'S A LONG WAY FORM Massanutten Mountain in northwestern Virginia to the heights of Mount Shasta in California. Yet the prospects for both areas and many other untrammeled national preserves are bound up in a single report put out by Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland last week. The report sums up the Forest Service's massive roadless area review and evaluation effort know as RARE II. Its aim is to settle the status of some 62 million acres of wild public lands -- an area almost as big as Colorado, but made up of nearly 2,700 parcels in national forests and grasslands in 37 states and Puerto Rico.
At issue is which of these resources should be permanently set aside as wilderness and which should be opened for "multiple use," including timbering, grazing, mining, oil and gas exploration and recreational development. Simply listing those options suggests how great the stakes and competing pressures are.
Take the matter of timber. The national forests provide about one-fifth of the country's wood and wood products each year. The Forest Service plans to sell roughly 12 billion board-feet this year. The lands not now in wilderness status could yield more, perhaps 16.5 billion board-feet annually. But even more than that will probably be needed for housing and other purposes by the year 2020 or so -- which is almost tomorrow in the lifespan of a tree. Better management may increase some yields. Still, with the price of wood already high and rising, there's good rason to be cautious about putting more prime forests out of bounds.
Much the same can be said for lands with rich mineral deposits or energy potential -- or special appeal as wilderness. That is what makes this review so difficult; there are valid public interests on several sides. Wilderness is also a national resource, after all, and one that cannot be easily reclaimed. Though the wilderness system has been enlarged impressively, the backcountry is getting more crowded every year. True, a lot of hiking can go along with other uses of forest lands. Thanks to better conservation practices, multiple use need not be as destructive as some people tend to think. But unless recreational resources are carefully husbanded, one can forsee a day when solitary hiking would require a reservation, or perhaps a pledge to live only in housing that doesn't use wood.
Given such conflicts, it's somewhat remarkable that only about half of Mr. Bergland's recommendations are really controversial. He proposes putting about 15 million acres in wilderness, releasing about 36 million and studying about 11 million some more. In the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests in Virginia, for instance, he would add about 64,000 roadless acres to the wilderness system, release about 104,000 acres for multiple use and review about 55,000 (including the end of Massanutten Mountain) again. We would prefer more preservation in such Eastern areas where recreational pressures are so heavy and wild stretches so rare. In the West, though, the case for more wilderness -- or against careful timbering and other uses -- is, in general, harder to make.
The final fights are still ahead. Mr Bergland has scheduled 45 days for public and congressional comments before his plan goes to President Carter. By mid-April, he hopes to send wilderness recommendations to Congress and start releasing other acreage for various uses. That timetable could produce some snarls if the Forest Service starts inviting commercial projects on lands that Congress later decides to reserve. Mr. Bergland would do better to hold off on the most controversial areas until Congress has had a bit more time to review all the resource problems involved. RARE II is too portentous to be rushed.