April 07, 2004 11:00 pm

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently announced his intent to introduce legislation to expand the Mount Hood Wilderness Area from 190,000 acres to 350,000 acres.

Wyden's proposal invoked negative reactions from some sectors and likely will face some opposition from multi-use interests. But given the amount of forest land set aside as wilderness in Oregon, Wyden's proposal is worth considering

It might be hard for people to believe considering how much national forest land there is in Oregon, but the state actually lags far behind the rest of the western United States in federally designated wilderness.

We're spoiled here in Eastern Oregon. We have one of the crown jewel wilderness areas in the state in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. However, some other areas of the state are threadbare when it comes to wilderness. The federally designated wilderness areas in central and western Oregon tend to be tiny and fragmented.

The proof is in the numbers. More than 35 percent of the federal land in Washington is locked up in wilderness. More than 32 percent of the federal land in California is wilderness.

The numbers throughout the West are fairly consistent — Colorado, 14 percent wilderness; Arizona, 14 percent; Montana, 13.4 percent; Idaho, 12.1 percent; Wyoming, 10.0 percent.

Oregon? Just 7 percent of the federal forests in our state is designated wilderness — one of the lowest of any state west of the Rockies. Less than 3.7 percent of the entire land area in the state is designated wilderness, again less than half the amount of most of the western states.

Mount Hood is central to Oregon's identity. It's also one of the most heavily visited areas in the state. The population of Oregon has boomed over the past 20 years and the development and overuse pressures on the Cascades are enormous. The legacy of unspoiled mountain wilderness should not be lost or forgotten.

It's important to remember that wilderness

areas have a number of restrictions, but they are not completely locked up. There's no motorized traffic, but there's hiking, camping, fishing and some hunting allowed. These lands are for the public — not only for those of us living today, but for future generations.

It seems that 160,000 additional acres — Wyden said he is willing to listen to and take into account the concerns of all interests before finalizing his legislation — is a reasonable amount to at least consider adding to Oregon's wilderness legacy. This represents less than 5 percent of the federal lands in the state. That leaves plenty of other lands for other uses.