Anti-wilderness amendment defeated amid onslaught in Congress

Red Cloud Peak Wilderness Study Area (Colorado).

Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

Wilderness champions in the Senate defeated an amendment that would have stripped protection from millions of acres of wilderness-quality land on Jan. 28.

The measure failed to reach the 60-vote threshold required for inclusion thanks to a bipartisan effort, as both Republican and Democratic senators opposed it.

If passed, Senate Amendment 166 would have removed protection from all “wilderness study areas” (WSAs) managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) unless they were designated as full-fledged wilderness by Congress within one year. This would have effectively allowed legislators in Washington, DC—who have protected little wilderness in recent history—to “run out the clock” on important conservation bills.

Wilderness study areas are parcels of land that have been identified as deserving of federally protected wilderness status—the highest degree of protection any public land can receive. In the meantime, the areas are managed by the BLM, FWS and U.S. Forest Service to protect their wilderness values. This way, when Congress moves to protect them, their “wilderness character” will be intact.

A reprieve for on-deck wilderness

If the amendment had passed, it would have put millions of acres of wilderness-quality BLM and FWS land in imminent danger of losing its special status.

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area (New Mexico). Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

Thanks to protracted partisan gridlock, Congress didn’t protect any wilderness between 2009 and 2014. This amendment would have rewarded similar inaction in the future, with the promise that unique wildlife habitat, outstanding recreational spots and cultural sites deserving of protection would simply fall off the docket if ignored. With its defeat, we are reminded that conservation still has some friends in Washington, DC, and buoyed that it will be possible to build on the protection of new wilderness in the closing days of the 113th Congress, in December, 2014.

In addition to voting down amendment 166, the Senate nearly passed bipartisan amendment 92, which would have permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It was one of few amendments to the receive even 50 “yes” votes (it ended up with 59, just one shy of the threshold for approval) and had more cosponsors than any other single amendment. Even in defeat, the support it enjoyed was a strong indication of pro-conservation values across party lines.

Hard work ahead    

These victories notwithstanding, the 114th Congress has already shown an alarming zeal for undermining protections for our nations lands and waters.  Recently, three measures were introduced to gut the Antiquities Act, which has been used on a bipartisan basis by presidents to protect natural and historic landmarks since 1906. One of those—Senate Amendment 132—was defeated along similar bipartisan lines, but 2015 promises to feature many similar attacks on conservation.

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These attacks are starkly at odds with the will of most Americans. A recent survey sponsored by the Center for American Progress found that about 90 percent of voters support permanently protecting some public lands, including wilderness, including a majority of respondents among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Similarly, 69 percent oppose measures to stop the protection of public lands like national parks, monuments and wilderness areas.

We will continue to stand up to these efforts to rob our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to experience and explore a wild America.

Take action: tell Congress to vote NO on all “blocking new national parks” legislation