Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has announced the Bush Administration would recommend to Congress that an additional 8,090 acres of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia be protected as wilderness. The announcement marks the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

"The Department of Agriculture has long played a leading role in working with states and local communities to protect and manage wilderness," said Veneman. "The Bush Administration is committed to the importance of these wildlands and the wealth of biodiversity they represent."

The Georgia areas being recommended are all additions to the 10 existing wilderness areas administered by the Forest Service in the Southern Appalachians — one of the most biologically rich areas of the country. The proposed acres would adjust boundaries to improve management and maintain wilderness characteristics. If approved by Congress, wilderness acreage on the Chattahoochee would increase by 8,090 acres to a total of 125,520 acres.

"I want to thank President Bush and Secretary Veneman for seeking the input of state and local officials on decisions that affect our communities," said Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue. "The Forest Service sought input from numerous stakeholders in making this important decision to protect over 8,000 acres in North Georgia. This pristine forest land will now be protected for generations of Georgians to enjoy."

Veneman also announced the 10-Year Wilderness Challenge, a plan to bring all wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service to a set standard level of stewardship by the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

The 10-year wilderness plan calls for the Forest Service to better integrate the natural role of wildfire into the wilderness ecosystem, enhance air quality, reduce the number of invasive species, improve management of recreation opportunities, work with outfitting and guiding partners to enhance public enjoyment, and monitor these special areas to ensure their protection for future generations.

Americans are marking the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by participating in more than 80 events nationwide. The events include community walks, educational exhibits and lectures, and music, art and film festivals. The celebration will continue throughout the year across the nation.

Congress established the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964 by designating 54 wilderness areas covering 9.1 million acres in 13 states to make up the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today the system includes 662 areas covering about 105.7 million acres in 44 states. The Forest Service manages 406 federal wilderness areas nationwide, which represent about 34.8 million acres or 32 percent out of the total acres.

The wilderness recommendation for the Southern Appalachians follows two earlier wilderness proposals by the Bush Administration. In July Veneman recommended that 64,000 acres be designated in southwest Oregon as part of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and in May 2002 Veneman recommended 1.4 million acres be designated in the Chugach National Forest.