National Opinions

San Francisco Chronicle: 'A wilderness win'

It's taken years of waiting, bargaining and politicking but it was worth it: A Yosemite-size spread of wilderness protections is coming to California.

The package, passed by the Senate with House approval likely soon, will safeguard 735,000 acres of giant sequoias, granite canyons, river headwaters, and desert habitat for bighorn sheep.

The designation spares existing federal lands from mining, logging and drilling while allowing visitors to camp, hike and horseback ride.

The wilderness label puts these lands on even a higher plateau than national parks.

No new roads, motorized vehicles or major buildings are allowed.

Why would such strict rules be necessary, especially if the land is already in federal hands?

As eight years of the Bush administration showed, anything less than unbreakable controls won't work, the bill's backers believed.

"We can't lose our wilderness areas," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., an active booster of the bill. "Once they're gone, they're gone."

Most of the protected areas in this state are in the central Sierra and desert backcountry of Southern California.

Much of the designated land adjoins the Sequoia- Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree national parks.

One unusual feature is a $88 million plan to revive salmon runs in the San Joaquin River, ending a long dispute among environmentalists, federal water agencies and Central Valley farmers.

The wilderness label should assure Americans that wild, untouched expanses will remain, a worthy reminder of this country's natural heritage.