Down but not defeated: Wilderness legislation deserves another day

Aspen in Bridger-Teton National Forest, a part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, Wyoming. Courtesy NFS.

What a slug in the stomach March 11 turned out to be for wild lands.

At The Wilderness Society today, folks were waiting with bated breath and figurative confetti in hand as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on a long-awaited, historic piece of legislation that would have created the largest expansion of wilderness protection in 15 years.

See a map of America's newest wild lands and Wilderness.

Earlier in the morning, e-mails were zooming. Phones were buzzing. Everyone in the organization was anxious for wilderness history to unfold. The legislation at hand was the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which had enjoyed wide, bipartisan support on its way to the floor. All indications said the bill had great chances of passing.

As the organization’s Web editor, I was already envisioning my celebratory blog as I flipped CSPAN on for the final vote. Despite warnings that the vote would be very close, I was hopeful the House would come down on the right side of history.

If the act passed, more than 2 million acres of unspeakably spectacular wild lands throughout the nation would be preserved – places like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where I've spent many soul-aligning moments would be safe from the unpleasant sites, sounds and smells of industrial despoilment.

And I wasn’t the only hopeful one. My colleagues who put loads of sweat and muscle into moving this legislation forward had every reason to believe we might be uncorking the champagne bottles today.

That’s because the act had tremendous support on both sides of the aisle. It was the culmination of years of work and support by numerous believers. In fact, the act had already passed in the Senate in January. The only major hurdle left was the vote in the House, after which the bill would take a short detour back to the Senate for a vote on an amendment added in the House version.

And then, in mere seconds the party was over. The bill failed by a mere two votes.

Because of a special procedural maneuver used to get this vote to the floor, a majority of two-thirds was needed. The 282-144 vote in favor did not make it.

What a blow. We were so close.

In the light of this opposition from a minority of House members, let’s be very clear about why this bill should have passed hands-down: Americans like you and me deserve to have such protections come about.

The lands in the bill provide jaw-dropping vistas, soul-calming outings and adventurous expeditions to anyone who chooses to enjoy the offerings. More than that, they represent our very last pieces of untamed American wildness. They are the final, but closing window to the wild, raw American frontier that Albert Bierstadt and his companions must have seen when they painted their great landscapes.

American citizens deserve to have these lands left intact. If not for the soul-nourishing aspects, certainly for the practical necessities they provide to life as we know it. Not only are these wild places a necessary part of any global warming solution, they also provide uncountable services from water filtration to air cleansing to recreation dollars for communities. And, they offer haven to the countless species that are integral to the world’s ecosystems.

Today was a blow indeed. But the one great take-away for me and my colleagues was that the bill came so gloriously close to passing. It confirms that Congress needs to keep hearing that we care about the public lands bill.

As one of our fearless leaders at The Wilderness Society said after the vote, “It is by no means the end. Today’s vote is a delay, not a defeat. This is merely another chapter in a great story.”

With that, we dusted off, stood up straight and prepared to fight another day.

photo: Aspen in Bridger-Teton National Forest, a part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, Wyoming. Courtesy NFS.