Good News from Washington, DC on the Wilderness Front

Bridalveil Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan. Courtesy NPS.

Congress took an important step on Jan. 11 toward making 2009 a banner year for wilderness designation.

During a rare Sunday session, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to move forward with a package of more than 160 public lands, water, and resources bills.

The omnibus lands act would provide the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 15 years, and includes 16 Wilderness bills from nine states. These bills would protect such emblematic treasures as California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, Oregon’s Mt. Hood, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

As a package, these bills include provisions that would:

  • Designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in California, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, and West Virginia;
  • Codify the National Landscape Conservation System, which currently protects 26 million acres of natural treasures managed by the Bureau of Land Management, including such American icons as the California coastline, and the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Sonoran Desert national monuments;
  • Protect 1.2 million acres of the scenic Wyoming Range in western Wyoming from oil and gas development;
  • Protect free-flowing rivers in California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and Massachusetts as Wild and Scenic Rivers; and
  • Designate numerous new National Scenic Trails, Natural Historic Sites, and, National Heritage Areas across the United States.

Unfortunately, the package also includes a provision that is incompatible with the bill’s conservation measures. The Izembek provision could result in removal of 200 acres of wilderness in Alaska to build a harmful and unnecessary road. The proposed road would adversely affect an internationally significant wetlands complex that is critically important habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. The Wilderness Society has worked hard to strip this provision from the package.

Although we are disappointed to see the Izembek provision moving forward, the package of bills, as a whole, is a great step forward for wilderness. Our hope is that the Senate will pass the package this week and that it will then quickly move through the House and to the president’s desk.

The Wilderness Society’s legislative specialists were on the Hill Sunday to encourage and thank our congressional champions, and we will continue to work with the Senate and House to promote its speedy passage. Check back frequently or subscribe to our RSS feed for updates on the bill’s progress.

photo: Bridalveil Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan. Courtesy NPS.