Between stalemates and disappointments, the lame-duck Congress voted to create more than 120,000 acres of new wilderness areas in five states, including a vast stretch of West Virginia woodlands that would become the second-largest wilderness in the East.
Five bills protecting wild forests in Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia passed in the last days of the session, although some had languished for much of the 97th Congress and others had been subject of intense local controversy for as long as 13 years.
Each measure was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats from the home state, continuing a trend of bipartisan support for wilderness protection that surfaced before the Nov. 2 general election.
Earlier in the lame-duck session, Congress amended the 1983 Interior Department appropriations bill to ban oil and gas leasing on 33 million pristine acres "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."
The largest new preserve would be the popular Cranberry Wilderness in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest--35,600 acres of hardwoods, hemlock and spruce that are home to 50 species of birds, including eastern North America's smallest owl, the six-inch saw whet owl.
"Congress and the American people have said very clearly that they want more, not less, of our wild areas preserved," said Peter Coppelman of the Wilderness Society. "They have rejected this administration's attempt to halt additions to our wilderness system."
The bills mark the only additions to the wilderness system in this Congress, other than a small portion of Georgia's wild Cumberland Island. A series of much larger wilderness proposals for California, Oregon and Wyoming went down to defeat.
The Reagan administration opposed the West Virginia and Florida measures, and officials said yesterday that Reagan may veto them because they require the government to reimburse mining companies for mineral rights in the new wilderness areas.
The West Virginia wilderness would take in rich coal deposits in the national forest, and the Florida boundaries encompass phosphate mines in the Osceola National Forest. Both bills would ban further mining in the forests, which are popular camping and hiking grounds.
The measures garnered heavy grass-roots backing in each state, particularly in Florida, where wilderness advocates dubbed their movement the "Palmetto Rebellion" and won the backing of Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), all 15 congressmen, Gov. Robert Graham and both houses of the legislature.
"I firmly believe this is an area of the state that shouldn't be tampered with," said Hawkins, who was doggedly lobbying for Reagan to sign the bill. The Florida bill would create 50,000 acres of wilderness forests in the Osceola, Ocala and Apalachicola national forests, doubling the forest acreage now protected as wilderness.
The other bills would create 6,800 acres of wilderness in Alabama's Talladega National Forest, 13,000 acres in Indiana's Hoosier National Forest, 6,888 acres in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest and 47,800 in West Virginia's Monongahela.