For Wilderness Lovers, This Year Could Deliver a Sweeping Victory—or a Big Disappointment

Siskiyou Illinois headwaters, Oregon. Photo by Rolf Skar, Courtesy Siskiyou Regional Education Project

Right now, a sweeping and long-awaited package of bills that would conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of new Wilderness and other special public lands is working its way through Congress. If passed, the omnibus lands act, would provide the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 14 years.

So much work has gone into making these wilderness-friendly bills a reality, but with the end of the legislative year, many larger, controversial national issues have taken attention away from passing the legislation.

We’ve been pushing Congress to move forward on this monumental legislation soon, because once the year ends, it’s back to the ole’ Congressional drawing board. A huge opportunity to lock in permanent protection for very special places will have slipped away. Should Congress fail to act, there is not guarantee that the omnibus lands act will reemerge in the 111th Congress. There will be newly elected officials who have not before seen the bills of the current package; and some of the bill's authors are retiring this year.

Recently, good news arrived when Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reported the legislation would be brought to the floor in a post-election session. If the bill is indeed passed and signed into law, wild areas in eight states would gain the government’s highest level of protection!

Old-growth coastal forests in Oregon, legendary trout streams in West Virginia, rugged desert landscapes in California, and many others, would be permanently protected.

America’s newest conservation system would also be given formal recognition. The National Landscape Conservation System was established in 2000 to encompass the crown jewels of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 26 million-acre system includes the BLM' s National Monuments, Conservation Areas, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Trails.

One bill in the package is not good news, however: a land exchange proposal that would de-designate permanently protected Wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in order to allow a road to be built. The Wilderness Society strongly opposes the Izembek bill and we are working hard to have it removed from the public lands package before any floor vote. It is an unnecessary and harmful proposal that will fragment and permanently damage a wilderness resource that provides critical habitat for hundreds of thousands of the world's migratory birds, as well as for other wildlife.

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