Lame Duck Could Be For Wilderness

Shaver's Fork Headwaters in Monongahela National Forest. Photo by Mark Muse.

A November lame duck session could see action on a public lands bill that protects two million acres. For the past eight years progress on environmental protection has been blocked by the Bush Administration, which has assembled one of the poorest environmental records in history. Now, a single Senator (Tom Coburn, R-OK) has managed to grind environmental progress to a halt by stalling every conservation measure taken up in the Senate. Such actions are significantly out of line with the wishes of the majority of Americans who have continually demonstrated strong support for strong environmental protection.

Congress now has the opportunity to take a significant action to protect vital pieces of the American landscape by passing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2008 as soon as possible after November’s election. In late September, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced an amendment to H.R. 5151, the Wild Monongahela Act, which includes nearly 150 separate measures passed by his committee. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has stated that he intends to bring the Senate back on Nov. 17 to take up the lands measure. Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) should ensure that the lands bill is a high priority for the House as well.

The omnibus lands act includes 15 Wilderness bills from eight states: California, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Virginia and West Virginia. Together, these bills would protect close to two million acres of new Wilderness, providing the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 14 years. These bills would protect such emblematic treasures as California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, Oregon’s Mt. Hood, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

The measures in the omnibus lands act have broad bi-partisan support. There are 53 senators who have authored bills in the omnibus lands act: 29 are Democrats, 23 are Republican, and one is Independent. Of the more than 50 bills heard by Bingaman’s committee in September and included in the omnibus, all passed unanimously. The vast majority of bills have little to no opposition. Virtually all of the measures included have strong local support and many are the result of years of local collaboration and consensus building. Only one bill that would de-designate existing Wilderness in Alaska (H.R. 2801/ S. 1680) is not broadly supported. This measure has no place in an omnibus lands act focused on conserving national treasures.

Reporters should also note that TWS takes great issue with the part of the bill that would de-designate Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.