Conservationists are working to build support for more than a dozen wilderness bills introduced in Congress that would provide the highest level of protections to more than 1.5 million acres in seven states.
The bills, two of which were included in a failed last-gasp public lands package last December, represent unfinished business for wilderness supporters who lobbied hard for their passage during the last Congress.
Proponents say they hope the bills can pass the 112th Congress despite lingering skepticism from Republicans who now control key committees in the House.
While the political terrain has changed, wilderness has a history of bipartisan and local support, proponents say. For example, four of the newly introduced bills come from Republicans, three of whom chair their own panels.
The bills, which would provide permanent protections to some of the nation's last remaining wild places, come at a time when the United States is losing 6,000 acres of open space each day, at a rate of 4 acres per minute, according to the Forest Service.
"The demand for wilderness across the American West and parts of the public lands in the East continues to increase," said Paul Spitler, associate director of the Wilderness Society's National Wilderness Campaigns.
Proponents point to bills such as Montana Sen. Jon Tester's (D) "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," which would couple wilderness protections with mandatory timber harvests and has gained the support of lumber groups, environmentalists and recreational outfitters.
The proposals would safeguard recreational opportunities like hiking, backpacking and angling while protecting wildlife and water supplies across some of the nation's best remaining backcountry, proponents say.
"Wilderness is a diminishing resource," Spitler said. "Our scientists can do wonderful things, but they have not found a way to make more wilderness."
But most of the bills will face an upward climb in the House, where leaders of the Natural Resources Committee say certain criteria must be met before they can support new wilderness.
"I'm not opposed to creating wilderness per se, but I want to make sure that first of all it has the consent of local elected officials as well as the members of Congress from that area," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, which reviews wilderness proposals. Wilderness bills also should not create economic hardship or endanger private property, he added.
Bishop warned that the Interior Department's new "wild lands" order to evaluate and consider protections for roadless lands could be a "stumbling block" for efforts to create permanent wilderness. The policy was defunded this month as part of Congress' continuing resolution, and opponents have vowed to strip funding again in the 2012 budget.
Public lands users, Bishop said, have no guarantee that lands released into multiple use as part of a wilderness bill will not be locked up administratively as wild lands.
"As long as Secretary [Ken] Salazar and Deputy Secretary [David] Hayes are piddling around with wild lands, it makes a major problem for moving anything forward," he said.
Some wilderness proposals may need to be coupled with provisions that would ensure the permanent release of other protected areas into multiple uses including oil and gas development, mining, timber, grazing and off-highway vehicle use, Bishop said.
'Thanks, but no thanks'?
But some of those compromises will be too much to bear for conservationists.
"There are certain prices for wilderness bills that are too high," said Mike Matz, director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness of the Pew Environment Group. For example, he said, "hard release" language that would prevent pristine lands from receiving future wilderness protections is a nonstarter.
"We simply cannot tie future generations to those standards," Matz said. "The conservation community will say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"
House Republicans recently introduced a bill they say will release roughly 6 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas and a majority of Forest Service's inventoried roadless lands into multiple uses.
But House leaders will be also under pressure from some in their own caucus to pass wilderness bills, Matz said.
Those include the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Idaho Republican Mike Simpson's "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act," which would designate 333,000 acres of wilderness while releasing more than 100,000 wilderness study areas and allowing some exceptions for motorized recreation.
"The leadership of Natural Resources Committee is fully cognizant that these bills are out there and that members of their own caucus want to move them," Matz said. "They're going to have to figure out how to wrestle with that and their other priorities."
House Republicans Darrell Issa and David Dreier of California and Dave Reichert of Washington have also introduced wilderness bills.
The bills may also get more attention now that Congress has passed a health care reform package, Wall Street reforms and a 2011 budget, observers say.
In addition, more than two years have passed since Congress passed its last omnibus public lands package, which designated 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas in nine states, an amount nearly equal to all the wilderness designated under the George W. Bush administration. No wilderness bills have been passed since.
"I think one of the issues last Congress is that a lot of these bills had to start from square one after passage of the omnibus lands act," the Wilderness Society's Spitler said. "Some will have a better shot with a full two years on the congressional calendar."
Republicans in both chambers denounced an omnibus public lands, wildlife and water proposal last December by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would have designated roughly 320,000 acres of wilderness.
Bishop said he has opposed past omnibus bills because they masked bad bills among good ones while sneaking by substantive policy changes.
But he said he would consider an omnibus public lands bill as long as each of the bills had received hearings in both the House and Senate and a vote in at least one of the chambers.
Bills seen as contenders
"Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" (S. 268): Tester's keystone public lands bill would designate nearly 700,000 acres of wilderness across the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai national forests of Montana while requiring the Forest Service to mechanically treat at least 100,000 acres of timber.
The bill was revised last summer to extend timber harvest and forest restoration timelines from 10 years to 15 years, and provisions were added to try to prevent projects from being challenged in court. Wilderness areas were adjusted to avoid certain trails and guarantee access for ranchers.
Tester, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had the bill inserted in a short-lived continuing resolution last December that died amid Republican opposition.
While it maintains the support of the Obama administration, Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), key environmental groups, timber mills and off-highway vehicle users, the bill failed to garner support from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who said he disagrees with the proposal's timber mandate.
The bill is also opposed by Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), who argues it was crafted behind closed doors and is opposed by most Montanans.
Rehberg's February announcement that he is running for Tester's Senate seat in 2012 could thrust wilderness into the campaign spotlight in the coming months.
The bill's passage would likely improve Tester's standing in the polls, observers say. It would also help Democrats protect a slim majority in the chamber.
"Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act" (H.R. 163):
Simpson has been pushing his proposal to designate 333,000 acres of wilderness in central Idaho's Boulder and White Cloud mountains for over a decade now and is well positioned to succeed now that he chairs the appropriations panel that funds Interior and the Forest Service.
The proposal nearly passed in the waning hours of the 110th Congress and appeared ready for markup in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year before Sen. Jim Risch withdrew his support.
The bill garnered the support of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials at a Senate committee hearing last June and was once sponsored by the entire Idaho congressional delegation.
But influential stakeholders in the state including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) and the Idaho Recreation Council, a trail access group, remain opposed to the bill on the grounds that Idaho does not need any more wilderness.
Freshman Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a tea party favorite who unseated Democrat Walt Minnick last November, presents another potential obstacle. Labrador, who is a member of the Natural Resources Committee, has not indicated whether he would support the bill.
But observers say Simpson may be willing to explore alternate legislative routes for passing the bill.
"Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act" (H.R. 608/S. 322):
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. David Reichert's (R-Wash.) legislation would expand the existing 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness by 22,100 acres and designate parts of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as "wild and scenic."
The wilderness area is the closest and most accessible to residents of the greater Seattle metropolitan area and would preserve existing recreational opportunities for hiking, camping, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, mountain biking and wildlife viewing, according to supporters.
Reichert's bill was passed by the House on a voice vote in March 2010 and was among the wilderness bills included in Reid's omnibus public lands package last December.
As such, the bill is one of a few that could be included in a Senate omnibus package this Congress without additional hearings or markups, Matz said.
"Devil's Staircase Wilderness Act" (H.R. 1413/S. 766):
The bill reintroduced this month by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) would permanently protect nearly 30,000 acres of wilderness on Wassen Creek in Oregon's Coast Range.
The area is considered one of the most secluded locations in Oregon and is home to some of the best remaining classic old-growth forest in the Coast Range. The area is a stronghold for native species including threatened spotted owls, elk, black bear mountain lions, river otter and mink.
The bill passed the Senate ENR Committee last August and was also among the wilderness bills included in the Reid omnibus package. The bill is co-sponsored by all members of the Oregon delegation except Republican Greg Walden and could be a candidate for fast-tracked consideration in the Senate.
"The California Desert Protection Act of 2011" (S. 138):
Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) bill would create a quarter-million acres of new BLM wilderness in Southern California in addition to creating two new national monuments, expanding national parks, protecting four waterways and improving recreation.
Feinstein's bill includes many proposals she pitched in the last Congress but is being introduced separate from provisions in last year's bill seeking to accelerate renewable energy development on private and disturbed public lands.
Parts of the proposal met resistance last May during a Senate hearing in which Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member of the committee, criticized Feinstein's bill as a "not in my backyard" approach that has tied up solar projects nationwide (E&E Daily, May 21, 2010).
In 1994, Feinstein's first "California Desert Protection Act" created the Mojave National Preserve and turned Joshua Tree and Death Valley into national parks.
Other wilderness bills
- "Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Act" (H.R. 41): Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) legislation was one of two wilderness bills introduced on the first day of the 112th Congress. It would protect more than 21,000 acres of wilderness in north San Diego County adjacent to existing wilderness at Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia in Riverside County.
- "Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act" (H.R. 113): Rep. David Dreier's (R-Calif.) bill would protect roughly 18,000 acres of wilderness in the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests near Los Angeles. The forests include the San Gabriel Mountains and are two of the country's most widely visited forests.
- "Summit and Eagle County Wilderness Preservation Act": Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) last week said he will reintroduce legislation to protect nearly 166,000 acres of rugged lands, including 81,790 acres of wilderness, on his state's White River National Forest and surrounding BLM areas in the central Colorado Rockies.
- "Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act" (H.R. 1241/S. 667): Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced his bill in late March to protect some 235,000 acres northwest of Taos as a conservation area, which would include more than 21,000 acres of designated wilderness. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is a co-sponsor.
- "Manzano Wilderness Addition" (H.R. 490): Rep. Martin Heinrich's (D-N.M.) bill would expand the Cibola National Forest while expanding the existing Manzano Mountain Wilderness in the south by approximately 900 acres. The proposal will protect a key north-south migration corridor for wildlife.
- "The Pinnacles National Park Act" (S. 161): Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) bill would designate the area around Pinnacles National Monument in California as a national park and would expand the existing Pinnacles Wilderness by 2,715 acres and change the name to the Hain Wilderness, after the early homesteader Schuyler Hain, whose conservation efforts led to President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of Pinnacles National Monument in 1908.
- "Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act" (S. 140): Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in January reintroduced Senate legislation to protect more than 32,500 acres of wilderness in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
- "The Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Act" (S. 607): Wyden and Merkley's legislation would create more than 16,000 acres of wilderness in the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven areas near Oregon's lower John Day River.