Officials differ on former state of wilderness area

Saturday, August 21st 2004, 9:23 am
By: News On 6

IDABEL, Okla. (AP) _ Wildlife officials say they want to restore the McCurtain County Wilderness Area to its natural state, but one county official thinks the plan to do so is flawed.

``They're trying to create something that never existed in the first place,'' said Deputy Assessor Benny Watson.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wants to thin out young hardwood trees and keep undergrowth down, said Richard Hatcher, assistant director of the department.

State Attorney General Drew Edmondson ruled this week that state law allows wildlife officials to remove small trees from the wilderness area, a 14,000-acre tract on the northeastern corner of Broken Bow Lake. The area, off-limits to the public, is supposed to remain virtually unaltered from its native state.

Watson said surveyors' notes from 1896 describe the land as ``rolling and mountainous'' and the soil as ``fourth-rate.'' In most of the notes, the timber was described as ``pine, oak, cedar and hickory,'' along with ash, elm and maple, Watson said.

``There's a hell of a lot more hardwoods involved than pine,'' he said.

The wildlife department's clearing program, which started 12 years ago, helps promote native tall pines and improves the habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, wildlife officials said.

They also said removing undergrowth and small trees helps restore the land to its natural state. Such plants are relatively recent incursions because fires that once cleared such growth every few years were prevented in modern times, they said.

The wildlife department hopes to restore the land to what the surveyors saw in 1896.

``It's not our intention to get rid of all the hardwoods on the wilderness area anyway,'' Hatcher said. ``Never has been.''