2010 in review: Our gains for wilderness

Sunset in Louisiana. Photo by nwebb1, Flickr.

As we prepare to meet conservation challenges presented in the new Congress, it’s a good time to assess — and celebrate — the progress we made for wildlands protection in 2010.

Times have changed dramatically since the Bush days when we were holding the line against every environmental attack imaginable, but threats from climate change, oil and gas drilling, development, off-road vehicle abuse and other dangers still abound for public lands.

Our nation's last undeveloped wild lands remain a dwindling resource, but the positive steps you’ve helped us achieve for wild places this past year show that progress is possible.

Take a look at what we achieved together in 2010:

Safer areas for wildlife

To protect dwindling populations of wild bighorn sheep in Idaho from disease transmitted by domestic sheep, we convinced the U.S. Forest Service to suspend domestic sheep grazing in areas the bighorns depend upon in Idaho’s Salmon River Canyon.

Vermillion Basin sunset in Colorado. Photo by Sam Cox, Landscape Photography.In Colorado, greater sage grouse populations and some of the nation’s largest herds of big game animals were spared from the impacts of oil and gas development after we convinced the Bureau of Land Management to place Vermillion Basin and its colorful badlands off-limits to oil and gas development.

After the Gulf oil spill, we convinced the administration to hold off on allowing Shell Oil to drill in fragile Arctic waters where struggling species, such as ringed seals, walruses, polar bears, could be impacted by development and potential oil spills. While the administration has indicated that it will continue to explore the possibility of allowing access to the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the reprieve was a huge win.

Public lands better protected from oil and gas drilling

While the Gulf oil spill and regular oil spills on land show that greater regulation of the oil and gas industry is needed, there is good news in the realm of oil and gas impacts to public lands. Here’s a small taste of what we accomplished in 2010:

  • Major reforms to oil and gas leasing: We helped convince the Department of Interior to announce sweeping reforms to oil and gas leasing of public lands. These reforms will help pull back the unfettered control the oil and gas industry has had over our public lands throughout the American West by requiring future oil and gas leasing decisions on such lands to undergo greater management and environmental scrutiny by the Bureau of Land Management and the public.
  • Special places in Alaska protected from drilling:
    • We helped pull back leases in dozens of lease tracts in sensitive areas throughout the West, including over a million acres of wildlife habitat in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.We also ensured the annual attempts by oil and gas companies to gain access to the Arctic Refuge were thwarted.
  • Success for Wyoming Range: After more than five years of legal wrangling and widespread opposition, the Bridger-Teton National Forest appears poised to cancel contested oil and gas leases on more than 44,000 acres of the Wyoming Range. The forest lands along the eastern flank of this mountain range in western Wyoming should not be leased for energy development, and when the agency issues its final record of decision on these contested leases in late 2010, we’re hopeful the area will be permanently protected.
  • Companies do the right thing in Montana: five exploration companies agreed to relinquish eight oil and gas leases on 29,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front.
  • Rock art panel in Utah, threatened by intensive natural gas development. Photo by Phil Hanceford.Inappropriate oil and gas leases pulled back in Utah: Our coalition won suspension of plans to proceed on 77 Utah areas that the Bush administration sought to lease in 2008, including proposed wilderness and lands adjacent to national parks. We also prevented the government from taking shortcuts in evaluating proposals for oil and gas drilling that posed a threat to prehistoric rock art in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon while ensuring that this misguiding policy was corrected to prevent similar damage around the West.

America’s first ever solar projects on public lands

Solar energy system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, NREL.The Interior Department has committed to helping achieve a clean energy future, making responsible renewable energy development a priority on public lands. This year saw the historic approval of the first solar projects on public lands, including several that we successfully worked to ensure had minimal impacts to wildlands and wildlife, thus earning our support. Our work to ensure future projects are guided to low-conflict zones continues as well, with major decisions to be made in the coming year.

More Conservation for the BLM’s Conservation Lands

In November, the Secretary of the Interior issued an order directing land managers to make conservation the priority for Conservation Lands. This great news comes just after the release of our a ten-year assessment of the Conservation Lands, in which we recommended conservation be prioritized over other uses like energy development. Conservation Lands include 27 million acres of National Monuments, National Conservation Areas and other special areas, such as Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

Climate deniers held at bay

Unfortunately Congress did not make progress on passing climate change legislation in 2010, but voters showed that Americans want action on climate change. In California, voters turned out to defeat the oil and gas industry supported Prop 23, which would have dismantled that state’s landmark greenhouse gas legislation. We’ve also been able to defend the Clean Air Act against attacks by Big Oil and its supporters in Congress to gut the act and end the EPA’s ability to protect the public from carbon pollution.

Solutions for off-road vehicle impacts

In 2010, we made gains in limiting harmful off-roading in national forests throughout the country. In California, for example, we secured plans that will close thousands of miles of environmentally damaging off-road vehicle routes on national forest lands. And in Idaho’s Payette National Forest, the Forest Service agreed not to allow dirt bikes near a wild and scenic river.

Healthier forests and wildlands

Fall colors in Nez Perce National Forest. Photo by Steve Armstrong, USFS.

Working with coalition partners, we won greater government funding for stewardship and repair of damaged forestlands and we helped create new policies that will help protect some of our nation’s greatest forests from development:

  • In Alaska, we helped create a new Forest Service vision to transition logging out of ancient, old-growth areas of the Tongass National Forest and into new-growth areas. This move will help the forest heal from decades of exploitation and help preserve what's left of the Tongass' ancient trees while resolving long-standing resource disputes.
  • We won a court ruling directing the Forest Service to consider recommending significantly more wilderness in the four southern California national forests.
  • We gained increased congressional funding for stewardship of threatened natural areas and secured $90 million to restore damaged watersheds in national forests.
  • We helped win a Forest Service initiative to deal with thousands of miles of 4x4 tracks that are no longer needed and are bleeding sediment and pollutants into rivers. This is a big step forward because reducing these tracks will reduce pollution in rivers and help restore fisheries.
  • Secured U.S. Forest Service allocation of $2.6 million for road decommissioning and drainage improvements in the Skokomish Watershed in Washington state, where The Wilderness Society is leading a collaborative watershed restoration initiative. This funding will create much-needed jobs on the Olympic Peninsula.
  • We led an effort that resulted in the creation of a Forest Service fund for fighting forest fires so these massive costs no longer siphon money from other public lands programs.

Sunset in Louisiana. Photo by nwebb1, Flickr.
Vermillion Basin sunset in Colorado. Photo by Sam Cox, Landscape Photography.
Rock art panel in Utah, threatened by intensive natural gas development. Photo by Phil Hanceford.
Solar energy system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, NREL.
Fall colors in Nez Perce National Forest. Photo by Steve Armstrong, USFS.