Senate Hearing Initiates Long-Awaited Discussion on Locally-Driven Wilderness Bills in CA, CO, and NM

Nov 20, 2013

Hermosa Creek

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining today took up three wilderness bills offering protection for spectacular wild lands, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitat in California, Colorado, and New Mexico—a positive step towards more popular and locally supported lands bills moving in the 113th Congress. Movement of these bills, however, comes at a steep price: the legislation is bundled with a devastating measure (S. 1479) that would threaten endangered species habitat protections and unleash logging on millions of backcountry national forest lands across the United States.

“These wilderness bills have been locally-grown and broadly supported efforts for years before coming to Capitol Hill—and the communities who crafted them deserve to see a swift and clean legislative process that leads to protection of these irreplaceable wild places,” says Alan Rowsome, senior director for government relations for The Wilderness Society.

With each wilderness measure protecting critical lands and watersheds near growing metropolitan centers of the West, testimony touched on the bills’ broad local support in their respective regions. New Mexico’s Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act (S. 776) would protect 45,000 acres of remarkable wildlife habitat, an important source of clean water, and a prized hunting and fishing destination north of Taos. The area represents the last remaining portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to be considered for wilderness designation—providing a significant clean water source for the central Rio Grande Corridor of New Mexico and supplying water to two of the larger Rio Grande tributaries – the Red River and the Rio Hondo. It also waters many Acequias used by the local agricultural community. The Act was introduced by Senator Tom Udall and co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich.  Rep. Ben Ray Luján (NM-3) introduced a House companion (H.R. 1683) that is co-sponsored by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-1).

California’s Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Recreation Area Act (S. 483)—sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D) with a House companion bill (H.R. 1025) supported by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Dist 5) and eight other members of the California delegation—would encompass approximately 319,000 acres of existing federal lands into a national recreation area designation for hiking, camping, rafting, and horseback riding. The area also provides important habitat for a diverse array of wildlife including bald and golden eagles, black bears and tule elk—all under 100 miles from the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.

The third bill addressed by the hearing would permanently protect the Hermosa Creek watershed on the San Juan National Forest near Durango, Colorado, revered for its clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities such as mountain biking, hunting, hiking, and fishing for native Colorado River cutthroat trout. The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act would create a 37,000-acre Wilderness within more than 100,000 acres of a Watershed Protection Area and surrounded by special management areas that allow for popular mountain biking and motorized recreation trails, including snowmobiling. The legislation (S. 841) was introduced in April by Senator Michael Bennet (D), co-sponsored by Senator Mark Udall (D), with a companion bill in the House (H.R. 1839) introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Dist 3). 

“Though we are very pleased to see these three citizen-crafted wilderness and public lands bills being heard this week, it is unfortunate that they also include the consideration of a measure that would override nearly a century of conservation work to protect our roadless and other wilderness-quality lands,” says Rowsome.

New survey results issued Monday from the Center for American Progress and Hart Research Associates shows that both Republican and Democratic voters want more public lands protection, not less. Seventy percent of voters polled for the report believe that our public lands and natural resources are huge economic engines for the nation, supplying everything from the energy that powers our economy to the icons that attract tourism and outdoor recreation. In the wake of the recent government shutdown, voters feel that neither Congress, the administration, nor either political party is doing enough to protect public lands.

 “Local communities are working hard to forge dynamic partnerships and create homegrown solutions for protecting their most treasured natural places,” says Anne Merwin, wilderness policy director with The Wilderness Society. “They don’t need mandates all the way from Washington that slash funding and demand clear-cutting of the very forest sanctuaries they love.”

Among other titles, S. 1479 dramatically increases the areas of our national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that can be logged or developed with limited public review, while also eliminating protections for roadless areas, wilderness study areas, endangered and threatened species habitat, and other ecologically sensitive areas, along with making major changes to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for listing decisions, recovery plans, and critical habitat designations.

“The Wilderness Society urges swift passage of these wilderness bills while resisting public lands giveaways like S. 1479 that trash our last wild places and cost local communities jobs and economic growth,” says Rowsome.

Today’s hearing is the next step in a process to move these bills on to further review and eventual passage by the Senate. With the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act rapidly approaching in 2014, wilderness advocates are hoping the 113th Congress will break the logjam of public lands bills worthy of further review and eventual enactment.   

Resources

Center for American Progress, Hart Research Associates Survey:  November 18, 2013. http://www.americanprogress.org/press/release/2013/11/18/79501/release-new-research-finds-voters-dont-believe-either-party-is-doing-enough-to-protect-national-parks-public-lands/

Alan Rowsone
(202) 429-2643