Wilderness bill falls just shy of passage

Steese National Conservation Area, which is a part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. Courtesy BLM.

A historic piece of wilderness legislation came just short of passage in the House of Representatives today, prompting a collective gasp of disappointment from wild land champions.

The legislation, of which The Wilderness Society is a fervent supporter, is a collection of wide-ranging bills that would grant needed protections to lands, waters and cultural sites throughout the nation.

While the Omnibus Public Land Management Act has broad bi-partisan support, it needed a two-thirds majority due to procedural agreement. The 282-144 vote in favor was just two votes short.

“The broad support in the House and Senate demonstrate the importance of this legislation, and we urge Congress to pass this landmark bill as soon as possible to ensure that these undeveloped landscapes are permanently protected for all Americans to enjoy,” said Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows.

The vote, the culmination of years of work of a diverse, bipartisan group of supporters, had been postponed numerous times in Congress, but it leaped toward victory with Senate passage in January. The House of Representatives was the last major hurdle.

Had the bill passed today, it would have needed only to go back to the Senate for a cloture vote on one House amendment. Then it would move onward to the president’s desk, where it was expected to be signed into law.

While the defeat was a big disappointment to conservationists, the battle for passage will continue.

“Today’s vote is not the end of the story and the overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate demonstrates the importance of this bill,” said Paul Spitler, The Wilderness Society’s National Wilderness Campaigns Associate Director.

The Omnibus Public Land Act would give Wilderness designation to more than 2 million acres of spectacular lands in California, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, and West Virginia.

It would provide the largest expansion of the wilderness preservation system in 15 years and make official the National Landscape Conservation System, which is the Bureau of Land Management’s version of the National Park System.

“The unprotected wild areas that would be protected by the legislation are not just places where we hike, camp, fish, and hunt with our friends and families. They are places that filter our water, cleanse our air, and temper the effects of global warming. But these last untouched public lands face tremendous development pressures,” Meadows said.

Meadows also thanked the many Wilderness Society members and supporters who have worked for the bill's passage.

“Your work will continue to be vital as we urge Congress to provide legislative protection for these critical wild lands,” he said.

See how your Representative voted here.

photo: Steese National Conservation Area, which is a part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. Courtesy BLM.