FREDERICKTOWN — Hundreds of bird-watchers, backpackers, hunters and rafters from across the state are lobbying Congress to designate about 50,000 acres as federally protected wilderness areas.
If the Missouri Wilderness Coalition succeeds, it would be the first time in more than 23 years that Congress has designated a wilderness area in Missouri, almost doubling the amount of land in the state with that kind of federal protection.
Most of the land is within the Mark Twain National Forest. If it becomes federally protected, the land would be off-limits to all-terrain vehicles and activities such as logging and mining that might mar the rugged landscape.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has expressed interest in supporting the measure. But the proposal could still face significant hurdles. The group must convince a member of the Missouri delegation to sponsor legislation — and Bond hasn’t committed yet to doing so.
The plan also could face opposition from private landowners, riders of all-terrain vehicles and the timber industry. Those groups haven’t voiced strong objections yet, perhaps because many have only recently found out about the proposal.
Coalition spokesman Scott Merritt said the land is prime to be preserved.
“Missouri needs places where nature can be found, where the countryside can be untrammeled, undeveloped,” Merritt said. “We need places where we can find solitude.”
Forest Service officials say some parcels of land up for protection fail to meet the definition of wilderness because they are crisscrossed with old roads, too close to urbanized areas or have too many buildings on them.
Coalition members say the proposed areas include some of the last remnants of the Ozarks unspoiled by development. The land includes a 2,000-acre tract about 20 minutes southeast of Columbia that remains untouched by farming and a remote 8,000-acre parcel featuring one of the Ozarks’ most popular canoeing streams, the Current River.
Coalition members are organizing conservation groups to start lobbying Missouri delegation members to sponsor wilderness legislation.
Bond, who has previously voted for wilderness protection, appears supportive.
“I look forward to working with the Missouri Wilderness Coalition and my colleagues in Congress to extend federal protection to remaining areas deserving of special protection,” he said in a statement.
In 1976, Missouri’s first wilderness legislation was passed, designating Hercules Glades in Taney County and the Mingo Swamp in Wayne County as federally protected wilderness areas.
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 in the Mark Twain National Forest.