5 more wild places that should be protected

Photo: A tent pitched near Pika Lake in Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds region. 

Credit: Ed Cannady Photography.

President Barack Obama recently designated the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico. Which wildlands are candidates for new protection moving forward, whether by executive or congressional action?

Many exceptional wildlands remain unprotected or under-protected, but sportsmen, businesses and outdoor recreationists at the local level are hard at work to close the gap. These efforts may come in the form of Congressional legislation, or, in cases with substantial public support but congressional inaction, a national monument declaration under the Antiquities Act. This tool has been used by all but a few presidents since Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law in 1906.

Here are five treasured wildlands that are prime candidates for new protections in the near future, whether it comes from the White House or the halls of Congress:

Boulder-White Clouds (Idaho)

Photo: The tallest mountain in Idaho’s White Cloud range is Castle Peak. Credit: Ed Cannady Photography.

In the upper Salmon River region of central Idaho, the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains preside over a patch of rocky wild land that harbors bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain goats and elk. Slightly to the east of the existing Sawtooth Wilderness Area, the Boulder-White Clouds have been the subject of conservation efforts for many years (and it’s no wonder). Protecting this area would boost the economy of nearby counties by up to $12 million annually, and prominent Idahoans, including former governor Cecil Andrus, have already voiced their support for the idea of beefing up conservation efforts to preserve this place for future generations.

How it could be protected: A bill referred to a House subcommittee in early 2013 would protect more than 332,000 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds, but it and similar efforts have stalled repeatedly in Congress. Working closely with in-state grassroots leaders, the president could designate a portion of the area as a national monument under the Antiquities Act and preserve valid existing rights. Under such a plan, activities like hunting, biking and other recreation would continue.

Browns Canyon (Colorado)

Photo: whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River. Credit: Richard Johnson, flickr.

This mountainous stretch of land along the Arkansas River between Salida and Buena Vista is replete with granite canyons and home to wildlife including black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, bobcat and mountain lions. But it has more to offer than beautiful scenery: Browns Canyon is the Arkansas River's single most popular section for whitewater rafting, contributing to its importance to local economies. The rafting industry here contributes more than $23 million a year to the Arkansas Valley economy. Additionally, the area is popular among hunters, anglers and hikers.

How it could be protected: A bill from Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) would make Browns Canyon a national monument and set nearly half of that aside as wilderness. The proposed Brown’s Canyon National Monument enjoys high levels of local support designation.  However, Congress has yet advance Sen. Udall’s bill beyond introduction.

Hermosa Creek Watershed (Colorado)

Photo: Hermosa Creek Watershed. Credit: Jeff Widen.

Southwest Colorado’s Hermosa Creek Watershed contains 17 distinct ecosystems, one gauge of its great value as a natural space. It also encompasses the largest unprotected roadless area in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and major elk and deer habitat have helped make this piece of the San Juan National Forest a cause celebre for sportsmen and wildlife watchers.

How it could be protected: Various bipartisan bills have been introduced over the years with an eye toward setting aside both wilderness and special management areas in the Hermosa Creek Watershed while preserving popular recreation opportunities in the area. Supporters of such legislation have included the Durango City Council, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, more than 100 business leaders in San Juan and La Plata counties, and the Colorado Snowmobile Association. These measures have enjoyed broad support from local sportsmen and other Coloradans, but as yet Congress has been unable to move this non-controversial protection plan forward.

Berryessa-Snow Mountain (California)

Cache Creek Wilderness. The creek for which it is named runs through the area proposed for protection in Berryessa-Snow Mountain. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM California), flickr.

Just a short drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, this range of public land in the Northern Inner Coast Range contains lush forests and meadows and supports wildlife including tule elk, ospreys, bald eagles, river otters and a variety of butterflies. Popular recreation in the area includes hiking, bike riding, kayaking, hunting and fishing. Berryessa-Snow Mountain was featured in a March 2014 report on major conservation bills that have languished in Congress despite local and bipartisan support.

How it could be protected: Like other places on this list, Berryessa-Snow Mountain has been the subject of multiple bills aimed at creating a National Conservation Area stretching from south of the Cedar Rough Wilderness, near Putah Creek, northwest to the Snow Mountain Wilderness, stitching together many parcels of public land. Such a designation would allow traditional uses of the land for ranchers and farmers and also preserve opportunities for outdoor recreation. Despite this, Congress has not acted.

Columbine Hondo (New Mexico)

Photo: Lobo Peak and Flag Mountain, in an area that has been proposed as wilderness in the Columbine Hondo region. Credit: David Herrera, flickr.

Just east of the Rio Grande, New Mexico's Columbine Hondo region is a roadless sanctuary in the Sangra de Cristo Mountains. Draped in fir, spruce and pine forest, it provides wildlife habitat and a vital migration corridor between the Wheeler Peak and Latir Peak Wilderness Areas. In addition to its great beauty, it serves as a source of clean water for many local communities and a place for outdoor recreation activities like hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and backpacking. Despite this, the area has been in limbo, waiting for permanent wilderness protection for more than 30 years.

How it could be protected: Wilderness protections have been proposed for Columbine Hondo in several pieces of legislation, and the area enjoys provisional status as a “wilderness study area.” If made official, wilderness status would help protect a wildlife corridor for elk, deer, mountain lions, black bears, bighorn sheep and other animals. 

Contact your members of Congress today, and tell them it’s time to pass wilderness bills!

While 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the law that provided the framework to preserve the nation’s most exceptional landscapes, lawmakers have protected very little public land in the last few years. This negligence of America’s natural heritage has not only affected the many bipartisan land protection bills awaiting passage in Congress, it has even included direct attacks on the underpinnings of conservation in our country.

However, there have been several important public lands victories in recent months that hopefully signal a change. In addition to the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, President Obama’s expansion of the California Coastal Monument and the passage of a bill in Congress designating parts of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as protected wilderness show that it is still possible to achieve conservation success. Recently, Senate hearings have occurred on legislation  to protect a number of natural treasures, and several wilderness bills in both houses of Congress have passed out of their respective committees.