Wilderness Society names top 15 endangered areas

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

PHOENIX (AP) -- Noisy air tours, jammed parking lots and nonstop river traffic have made Grand Canyon National Park one of the nation's most endangered wild places, according to an environmental group.

The Wilderness Society's annual list of the 15 most endangered lands was to be released Thursday. The advocate group for the protection of public lands cited the canyon and 14 other areas, primarily in the West, on its list this year.

Three of the 15 are in Alaska: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Denali National Park and Preserve, and the Copper River Delta.

''You might think that lands in Alaska would be less imperiled,'' said Allen Smith, who heads the state's Wilderness Society office. ''But the state's powerful representatives in Congress and major industries are full of schemes for exploiting our natural treasures.''

The arctic refuge's coastal plain has been targeted for oil and gas exploration, while Denali faces overuse pressures and Native corporation Chugach Alaska Inc. wants to build a road in the Copper River Delta to reach natural resource deposits.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, the assistant Alaska director, called the road ''a shortsighted act that could destroy a world-renowned fishery and other globally significant wildlife habitat.''

The Grand Canyon illustrates a trend in which private companies are reaping profits at the expense of natural resources, said Rose Fennell, a spokeswoman for the national parks division of the Wilderness Society.

''These companies are affecting public policy in the ways the land is managed,'' she said.

For example, 117,000 air tours buzz over the canyon each year in spite of a 1987 federal law sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to restore natural quiet to the canyon, she said.

Federal Aviation Administration rules announced last month would limit the sightseeing flights by increasing the ''no-fly zone'' from 45 percent of the park to 75 percent, among other measures. However, Fennell questioned the delay, saying flights had tripled over the 13 years since the McCain measure passed.

The Wilderness Society also expressed concern over vehicle congestion on the Grand Canyon's edge -- an issue park officials expect to be addressed by a light rail train slated to begin operation by spring of 2002.

Grand Canyon National Park officials did not immediately respond to calls for comment on the Wildness Society's report.

Concerns regarding the 14 other sites varied, but the Wilderness Society said one rising threat is the use of off-road vehicles.

That was a main concern at the Cabreza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Arizona, which also made the list.

The off-road vehicle problem there is being caused not only by recreational users, but also federal officials, said Kieran Suckling, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

''Wildlife service officials are treating the area like a motorcycle trail,'' he said.

The Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota also has been damaged by off-road vehicle use, oil development and grazing, the Wilderness Society said.

But Ron Whitehead, who ranches on the North Dakota-Montana border said the group's classification of the grasslands as endangered was unjustified.

He said he doesn't abuse the land because that would undermine his ranching efforts. ''I'm an environmentalist and conservationist just being here.''

While landing on the most endangered lands list isn't something to be proud of, one environmental group sees it as an opportunity for change.

''I'm glad the Grand Canyon is on the list so we can draw the broader public's attention,'' said Brad Ack, a spokesman for the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff-based conservation group.

''Hopefully, we can build the political support to change these things.''

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