Sen. Wyden is wise to propose Mount Hood wilderness legislationWilderness areas enshrine the American vision of limitless horizons to explore. They are secret gardens of struggle and adventure, places to test ourselves against rock fortresses and cathedral woods.

In the national consciousness they are as much myth as reality, physically remote but near to the heart. In any given year, a small fraction of Americans crosses a wilderness trail head and visits these fragments of a bygone Eden. Yet they enjoy a wide though nearly invisible popularity. Wilderness areas don't make it onto pollsters' lists of top 10 priorities for government, even as we appreciate their existence.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden picked an unusual time to propose greatly expanding designated wilderness around Mount Hood. He confronts an administration and congressional majority that is fundamentally opposed to any limitations on commercial exploitation of public lands. Although some wilderness advocates complain Wyden's plan isn't aggressive enough, most of his congressional colleagues are likely to reject out of hand any expansion.

But Wyden and his staff realize the long-term nature of these efforts. A proposal made today may succeed years, or even decades, later. It's wise to begin the long process, the most important element of which is gathering a public consensus for the plan not only among urban recreationists, but among Mount Hood residents.

Like other rural economies of western Oregon away from the windsurfers, Mount Hood has undergone something of a near-death experience in the past 20 years as globalized markets and mechanization have hammered logging, mining and other resource-based employment.

As elsewhere, there are those around Mount Hood who believe the days of abundant $40,000 a year timber jobs might return if only the tree-huggers would get out of the way. Alas, the world has moved on, and inexpensive competition from tree plantations in Canada, Chile, Russia and the Southeast United States has permanently altered the Northwest's economic landscape. Gone forever are the days when a timber worker with a high school education could nicely support a family.

Wilderness areas, or even a Mount Hood National Park, which some propose, won' t jump start any economy in the near term. In general, jobs in parks and recreation don't pay what a skilled woodsman used to make.

However, over the course of the next generation, Portland will do nothing but grow, and with it, the number of people attracted to the mountain for tranquillity, fun and spiritual recharge. Setting aside additional pristine land in the next few years, beyond satisfying some preservationist instinct, will be like buying a bank's certificate of deposit. Its value will do nothing but increase.

The Columbia Gorge proves that thriving communities can develop around recreation and scenic tourism. Eventually, the wilderness areas and national forests south of the river can share that success, and Wyden's proposal is a reasonable first step.