Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
courtesy of Lincoln Else
The beginning of President Obama’s second term and the start of a new Congress provide great new opportunities for permanently protecting the wildest, most pristine parts of our public lands. The previous 112th Congress was the first Congress since 1966 to not designate a single acre of Wilderness, leaving behind a massive logjam of unfinished conservation bills sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. While the composition of Congress has not changed (Democrats still control the Senate, while Republicans lead the House), we are hopeful that a second term for the Obama Administration, combined with Congressional wilderness champions on both sides of the aisle whose proposals have been frustrated for the last two years, will shift the political winds.
There will again be dozens of wilderness bills introduced during this Congress, like in the last one. These bills often have bipartisan co-sponsors, are supported by local residents, and would support healthy local economies (research has consistently shown that Wilderness areas are important drivers of economic growth in rural areas). With the establishment of new wilderness areas we would see an influx of visitors, tourists and people who want to recreate in these pristine places. Designating new wilderness areas would fulfill the vision set in motion by Congress when they passed the Wilderness Act in 1964 and created federal protection for millions of acres of our most cherished and untrammeled lands. Congress should commit to moving forward on this huge conservation backlog, and give the peoples’ voice a chance to be heard, by bringing these bills up for hearings and votes.
If Congress will not act to protect our public lands through wilderness designations, there is another way. Since 1906, the President and his/her administration have had the ability to designate National Monuments under the Antiquities Act. While not all places are necessarily right for National Monument status, there are many areas with incredible local and bipartisan support that deserve protection. Congress should act to protect these places, but it is well within the President’s jurisdiction to use the Antiquities Act when appropriate. The President did begin to use his authority during the first term to protect places like Fort Monroe and Chimney Rock, but there are many other nationally-important places that would benefit from the Antiquities Act during his 2nd term. Many partisans in Congress wish to weaken or outright get rid of this critical tool. It has been used for over 100 years to protect to iconic American landscapes, like Giant Sequoia in California and Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona, from the political expediencies of the day. We must not let Congress destroy one of the more important land protection tools in the president’s arsenal.
We hope the 113th Congress will reject repeating the infamous history of the 112th when it comes to wilderness designation and get to work passing wilderness bills.
Hopes for the Next Four Years