ST. LOUIS — Wilderness advocates will gather next week in Salem to plan the next steps of an effort to win federal protection for 50,000 acres of public land in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest.
The Missouri Wilderness conference on Sept. 6 is aimed at starting to build public awareness and support of the proposal before approaching potential sponsors in Missouri's congressional delegation.
"We feel confident they will want to do this good deed for Missouri," said John Karel of the Missouri Wilderness Coalition, an assortment of conservation groups working for the designation.
Currently, 4 percent of the Mark Twain forest is designated wilderness, meaning it is free of roads, all-terrain vehicles, mining and logging, but open to hiking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, canoeing and picnicking.
The additional acres would bring the amount of land in the state with that kind of protection to 7 percent. Missouri's last wilderness designation was 24 years ago. The first was in 1976.
While 50,000 acres sounds like a lot, it's "an incredibly modest proposal," organizer Scott Merritt said. The entire forest is 1.5 million acres.
"They're a rare resource worth protecting," Merritt said.
The coalition's proposal is for seven wild places that advocates say are vulnerable - Big Spring, Lower Rock Creek, North Fork, Smith Creek, Spring Creek, Swan Creek and Van East Mountain.
Karel said the areas were identified by conservation groups years ago, and, until recently, had special protection as "sensitive areas" under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
But the 2005 Forest Service plan dropped the sensitive area status, prompting conservationists to seek federal wilderness protection.
Karel said the wilderness areas are very popular with the public and heavily used.
The biggest hurdle may be winning over the Republican congresswoman for southeast Missouri where five of the proposed wilderness areas are located.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said she strongly opposes the proposal and believes it would hurt her constituents.
The group wants to meet with Emerson to discuss the proposal.
Mark Twain Deputy Forest Supervisor Paul Strong said the Forest Service did not recommend the areas for wilderness, but instead designated them as "semi-primitive, non-motorized."
He said the "semi-primitive" designation would allow the agency to do limited burning and logging to permit the growth of plants that would naturally grow in the environment.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said he would look at the proposal and consider the views of all stakeholders.
"I cannot support any proposal that does not have the clear support of local citizens and all affected members of the delegation," he said.
"Also, many have expressed concern with the impact this plan would have on good forestry management."
In 1976, Missouri's first wilderness legislation was passed, designating Hercules Glades in Taney County and the Mingo Swamp in Wayne County.
Between 1976 and 1984, about 100,000 acres, most of them in the southern Ozarks, were declared wilderness areas. Almost 64,000 acres of Missouri's wilderness areas are already in the Mark Twain National Forest.
Besides Hercules and Mingo, the state's other existing wilderness areas include Bell Mountain, Rockpile Mountain, Devil's Backbone, Paddy Creek and Irish Wilderness.
Strong said that because wilderness requires a hands-off management approach, Hercules Glades are at risk of being overrun by Eastern red cedar trees.
"That's the trade-off," he said.