Wilderness bill back on track

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. Photo by Gary Koutsoubis.

After last week’s whopping blow to wilderness legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, a historic wilderness bill is back on track.

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act was reintroduced in the Senate after a razor-close vote failed to secure its passage in the House on March 11. The legislation passed the Senate March 19, clearing perhaps the most significant hurdle to protecting some of the country’s most cherished landscapes. The vote was 77-20 in favor of the bill.

The legislation, which has been fervently supported by The Wilderness Society, is a collection of wide-ranging bills that would grant needed protections to lands, waters and cultural sites throughout the nation. It would give formal protection to more than two million acres of wilderness in nine states, including such American treasures as the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Oregon’s Mt. Hood, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This would be the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 15 years.

“The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority,” said Paul Spitler, the National Wilderness Campaigns Associate Director for The Wilderness Society. “These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis.”

According to Spitler, the House now will take up the bill as early as March 24 and is expected to pass it without change.

In addition to the wilderness provisions, the bills in the package includes bills that would:

  • 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 Canyons of the Ancients, Carrizo Plain, 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 will continue to work to ensure that this valuable and unique wilderness and wildlife resource remains protected.

Overall, however, the public lands package is the culmination of more than a decade of work by citizens, mayors, local communities, and conservation groups across the country and its passage in the House will be a testament to the history of American citizens caring for and protecting their wildlands for all to enjoy for decades to come as they hike, hunt, fish, and seek solitude.

“Senators Bingaman and Reid deserve our thanks and the gratitude of the American people for their continued leadership in advancing this landmark legislation, “ said Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows, who also thanked the many Wilderness Society members and supporters who have taken action in support of this landmark public lands bill.

photo: Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, which is a part of the National Landscape Conservation System. Photo by Gary Koutsoubis.