Congress considers Michigan and Nevada wilderness protections

The Sleeping Bear Dunes at Lake Michigan.

Credit: flickr, Rachel Kramer.

Congress is getting closer to snapping its nearly five-year wilderness designation drought, as measures to protect wild areas in Michigan and Nevada passed through House committee markup on Jan. 28.

Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore and Nevada’s Pine Forest Range and Lyon County are under consideration to be protected as wilderness areas, part of a large backlog of public lands conservation bills.

Political discord has prevented lawmakers from moving plans to protect wild places, despite broad public support in local communities and nationwide. The 112th Congress was the first to fail to protect a single acre of wilderness since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, who first signed the Wilderness Act into law. 

Even these bills are not without their shortcomings. “We applaud [House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc]  Hasting’s committee for moving these locally supported and broadly vetted bills along in the legislative process,” said Jeremy Garncarz, senior director of wildlands designations with The Wilderness Society, “but adding last-minute provisions that undercut wilderness management on public lands across the system turns a blind eye to the very democratic process that went into crafting these bills in the first place. The communities that worked long and hard on these bills deserve to see their legislation move forward cleanly and swiftly."

  "The communities that worked long and hard on these bills deserve to see their legislation move forward cleanly and swiftly."

To be sure, communities don’t always get what they deserve. Senate versions of all three of these bills have passed out of committee or better in the past, only to languish without enactment as law (a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore bill passed the full Senate in 2013 but had not made it past a subcommittee hearing in the House until now).

The Wilderness Society and local partners are working hard to protect wild places for the American people, but they can’t do it without the help of lawmakers in Washington. It is long past time for Congress to break its pattern of inaction and put strong wilderness protection measures up for a full vote.

Here’s a little more about the three places Congress is discussing now:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Credit: flickr, xray10.

This would-be wilderness area in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula was named the most beautiful place in the country in 2011 by Good Morning America, validating what many in the region—especially hikers, hunters, anglers and nature-watchers-- already knew.

Under the Sleeping Bear Dunes  bill, some 32,557 acres would be set aside, protecting portions of two islands, miles of beaches, forest and spectacular sand dunes rising hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan. In turn, this would help preserve habitat for wildlife including porcupines, white-tailed deer, red squirrels, eagles and hawks. The proposal enjoys bipartisan support among the Michigan delegation and among communities around the lakeshore.

In June 2013, the Senate version of the bill to protect Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as wilderness was passed. The House version received a subcommittee hearing in July 2013.

Pine Forest Range (Nevada)

The Pine Forest Range. Credit: flickr, Ken Lund.

This proposed wilderness area in the northwest corner of Nevada would bundle the Blue Lakes and Alder Creek wilderness study areas, which were established in 1980, into one protected stretch of aspen stands, sagebrush and clear lakes. Among other things, the Pine Forest Range is acclaimed for its fishing. In the Blue Lakes, the only alpine lakes in the region, resident species include rainbow, brook, cutthroat and tiger trout, leading Field and Stream to declare their value to anglers “immeasurable.” Wildlife is bountiful too: chukar partridge, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and mountain lions draw hunters from throughout the region. Those sportsmen joined with ranchers, nature-lovers and others in northern Nevada to develop a wilderness plan that works for the area.

A Senate version of this bill was passed out of the Natural Resources Committee in May 2013.

Lyon County (Nevada)

East Walker River, part of which runs through the proposed Wovoka Wilderness Area in Lyon County, Nevada. Credit: flickr, Warren Jackson.

If protected, the Wovoka Wilderness Area would encompass approximately 48,000 acres of central Nevada’s Pine Grove Hills, protecting popular fly-fishing spots and wildlife habitat containing sage grouse, bighorn sheep and other species. The protected area is the last major roadless stretch in Lyon County and sources water to the nearby East Walker River, a key natural resource.

The Senate version of this bill was passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June 2013. Until now, the House version had only made it as far as a subcommittee hearing.

Learn more about wilderness bills awaiting action by Congress.