How Congress dropped the ball again on wilderness this week

Photo: Washington’s Mount Rainier, part of Mount Rainier National Park. The park has received money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program left out of the “Sportsmen’s” bill.

Credit: flickr, Mount Rainier NPS.

Just over a month into a milestone year for American wilderness, Congress is still squandering prime opportunities to protect our public lands.

While 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the law that set the framework to preserve the nation’s most pristine landscapes, it also marks five years since Congress last protected any land as designated wilderness. What better time to break the streak?

Indeed, more than two dozen locally-supported public lands bills await attention in the House of Representatives, many with strong bipartisan support. And despite years-long gridlock in Washington, a recent thaw has seen Senate hearings on protecting some natural treasures, and several positive wilderness bills in both chambers passed out of committee. Could a new conservation renaissance be right around the corner?

Well, no. At least not for now. The week of Feb. 2 was testament to that. Instead of considering decent bills, Congress did this:

  • The House passed a package of bills, the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, which actually does nothing to improve access for sportsmen or conserve critical wildlife habitat but does undermine the core principles of the Wilderness Act.
  • A Senate committee considered the valiant-sounding National Forest Jobs and Management Act, which would actually double commercial logging in western forests while weakening environmental oversight.
  • To cap it off, the House passed the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act on Feb. 6, requiring a massive logging project without public or judicial review and advancing efforts to make it harder for private landowners to sell their land to the federal government.

These actions were bad for wilderness, and they didn't reflect the will of the people. In the wake of the federal government shutdown, most Americans said they wanted more public lands protected, not fewer. They also agreed that politicians are not doing enough to safeguard such places for future generations. The 112th Congress was the first since 1966 not to protect a single acre of wilderness, and so far, the current edition looks like more of the same.

Hopefully we won’t need to make this a weekly feature. The Wilderness Society is working with congressional wilderness champions (they do exist) to bust through legislative gridlock and secure permanent protection for special places across the U.S. It might not always be easy, but with the help of our members, and an American legacy of conservation that goes back to Aldo Leopold, we intend to fight on. You can help.

Help us protect American wilderness in 2014.

Learn more about 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.