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Wilderness successes could be lost if funding not restored

The 1964 Wilderness Act turned 50 this year, a reason to celebrate. Around the country events popped up to commemorate the anniversary. A national conference formed. Resolutions were passed, wilderness expansions pushed. Flags were raised, glasses lifted.

And not without cause. The landmark, bi-partisan bill took more than eight years in the making. It preserved our greatest treasures, providing a wild legacy for the future. For the millennials, a generation economically paralyzed by college debt, wilderness may be one of their greatest inheritances.

Over the years wilderness areas became my life. It started as a Boy Scout on my first venture into the Mark Hatfield Wilderness Area. About 10 years later I stepped into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for the first time. That started a slippery slope and I've been working in southwest Oregon's wilderness ever since.

And unfortunately the trends I have observed in management of wilderness are nothing to celebrate. I have watched wilderness programs be almost completely dismantled in southwest Oregon's forests.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest alone has over 300,000-acres of wilderness to manage and not a single wilderness ranger. No permanent wilderness coordinator. No permanent trail crew. And a fading number of field personnel altogether.

I watch field staff retire and their positions go unfilled, their indispensable knowledge left in dusted over file folders. I've watched ranger stations close and their hours reduced. What I've found in the field is worse.

On my treks I find an increasing number of dump sites in federal wilderness, more illegal mining sites, more illegal squatters, and more trails left to fade and disappear under the longest maintenance deferments in the history of the Forest Service.

But it's not all doom and gloom in the America's wilderness areas. My crews and hundreds of others throughout the U.S. are out battling blank line items with our boots on the ground. Armed with crosscut saws, pulaskis, axes and other hand tools we are doing our best to take wilderness back and create a positive presence there.

Corps programs all over the U.S. are putting young people to work, giving them a little grace from the oppressive cost of secondary education, and preserving our natural treasures. But those programs have to compete for funding with big headlines: air strikes, sweetheart interest rates for leveraged banks, Ebola. And they don't compete well.

So I encourage our policy makers to please do more than raise their glasses for wilderness. Please spend time to make sure our federal wilderness areas in southwest Oregon receive some relief. Allocate funding for a single wilderness ranger. Make sure some resources make it beyond the cubicles and into the hands to the next generation to restore their crumbling wilderness.

And if that's too much, I extend yet another whole-hearted invitation for you to come pull one end of a crosscut saw with my crew.

Gabe Howe of Ashand is executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club.