Open Season on Open Spaces: The biggest attack in history?

When did it become open season on our open spaces? First, Congress slashed conservation and environmental programs. Then we saw a backroom deal that stopped the BLM’s new Wildlands policy in its tracks. Now, to add insult to injury, we’re facing a new bill that could end efforts to protect approximately 60 million acres.

This new House leadership bill, The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, introduced by House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.),  would roll back existing protections and place at risk tens of millions more acres of wilderness-quality but unprotected National Forest and BLM public lands. It also prevents Congress or future administrations from using a national policy like the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect these lands in the future.

"This is the biggest attack on wilderness we have seen in the history of The Wilderness Society," Wilderness Society policy analyst Paul Spitler says. "These proposals fly in the face of Americans’ support for the stewardship of our public lands. They also fly in the face of nearly fifty years of legislation designating new wilderness areas. The tranquility of your favorite places where you love to hike, camp and watch wildlife? Gone. Protection for our drinking water? Gone.”

The McCarthy bill affects protected land all over the country from Alaska to West Virginia. In Nevada, Alder Creek and Burbank Canyons are two of the many special places that would lose protection."

“We are outraged at the wholesale attack on Nevada’s wild lands," Friends of Nevada Wilderness Executive Director Shaaron Netherton adds. "This proposed legislation would strip protection from virtually every wilderness study area in the state – 1.8 million acres would be opened up to development. Some of Nevada’s best wildlife habitat would be threatened.”

People in Idaho are equally outraged by the potential destruction of the Meadow Creek roadless are of the Nez Perce National Forest and the Peace Rock roadless area of the Boise National Forest.

“Overturning the national roadless protection plan would open up 9 million acres of public forests in Idaho to development," according to John McCarthy, the Idaho forest campaign director for The Wilderness Society. "The bill would also throw out the cooperative framework for eight citizen-led, forest collaborative groups around the state. Going backwards to reopen the roadless forest debate would sacrifice the common ground we’ve built in forest collaborative groups to do forest restoration work, support forest jobs, improve recreation opportunities and treat forest fuels to protect communities."

Even Rep. McCarthy's hometown newspaper The Bakersfield Californian editorialized against the bill, noting that "The rumbling sound you may have noticed coming from the general vicinity of the Sierra Nevada is Teddy Roosevelt rolling over in his grave."

Worse, the McCarthy bill comes on the heels of the backroom budget deal by Congress to prohibit the Bureau of Land Management from implementing its Wild Lands policy — one that intended to reverse the Bush administration’s policy of destroying wilderness-quality lands by opening them up to rampant oil and gas drilling and abusive off-road vehicle use.

Many have publicly voiced their support for the Wildlands policy, despite being denied an opportunity to testify at House subcommittee hearings.   Sportsmen, outdoor industry leaders, ministers, county commissioners, and numerous newspaper editorial boards, have all issued support for the policy.  A group of elected officials from several western states issued their own support of the Wild Lands policy in a piece submitted to The Hill newspaper. The New York Times didn’t care for the Wild Lands reversal, either.

"It is also important to note that not a single additional penny in the administration’s 2011 budget was dedicated to the Wild Lands policy," Meadows says. "It’s an ideological fight brought by oil companies and their friends in Congress, not a money-saving issue."

And let's not forget the budget deal compromise, when President Obama double-teamed with Congress and said on national television that the environment should not be a factor when negotiating the federal budget.

"That's short-sighted thinking," Meadows says. "We have to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink to survive. The environment can't be a pawn in a political game. It has to be a priority."

Going forward, The Wilderness Society will be fighting on all fronts to protect our open spaces.  Whether working to defeat the McCarthy bill or support the Wildlands policy, we are committed to ending open season on our open spaces in Washington.