Wilderness bills moving on anniversary of historic public lands bill

Vermillion sunset

Sam Cox

For months we have been frustrated at Congress for not moving (or passing for that matter!) any wilderness bills. In fact, as our report Wilderness Under Siege makes clear, there are now at least 13 bills pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would sell off, give away or open our public lands to corporate polluters. 

Yet things have indeed been percolating (and dare I say without jinxing anything) moving in Congress. As we commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, several bills had hearings or were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate.

Sidebar: In case you need a refresher as to what the Omnibus Public Land Management Act is, here is a great excerpt from The Wilderness Society’s president upon the passage of this landmark bill:

“The scope of the bill cannot be cannot be overstated: Nine states, 2.1 million acres of wilderness, landmark protection for over one million acres of wild landscapes in the Wyoming Range, and the designation of four national conservation areas and a national monument. It also formally establishes the National Landscape Conservation System, the first new system of conservation lands in more than half a century.”

While none of the bills below is nearly as big as the Omnibus, each would be important milestones for land conservation.

This recent surge of movement began March 22nd when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests held a hearing on five wilderness and conservation measures. They included:

  • The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act: Introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the Act would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, and would establish a 208,000-acre Conservation Area in the heart of the Rocky Mountain Front.
  • The San Juan Islands National Conservation Act: Sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Act would provide protection for nearly 1,000 acres of small islands, rocks and reef, headlands, historic lighthouses, and ecologically important areas in the San Juan Islands of Washington.
  • The Pine Forest Range Recreation Enhancement Act: Introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and co-sponsored by Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), the Act would establish 26,000 acres of Wilderness in the northwest Nevada’s Pine Forest Range.
  • The Rogue Wilderness Area Expansion Act: Introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden and co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, this legislation would add 58,000 acres to the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area, while establishing dozens of miles of wild and scenic rivers and adding protection to many Rogue River tributaries.
  • Then, a few days later, the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act was introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT). The Act would provide valuable protections to the watershed that provides municipal water to over a half-million residents of Salt Lake City while maintaining access for backcountry skiing.
  • And just one day before the anniversary, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing on two bills:
  • Introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), and in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) with Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) as a co-sponsor, the Rio Grande Del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act would protect 24,000 acres of northern New Mexico as Wilderness and 235,000 acres as a National Conservation Area.
  • The Maine Coastal Islands Wilderness Act -- introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) and co-sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) -- would establish over 3,000 acres of new Wilderness on 13 islands off the coast of Maine.

We hope these bills are only the beginning of a new chapter in Congress, and that many more of the like are introduced!

You can see a full list of bills that have been introduced in the 112th Congress here.