The Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee plans will meet Thursday to review bills that would put land in New Mexico and Oregon off-limits to energy developers and timber companies.
S. 1689, would designate approximately 250,000 acres in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico as federally protected wilderness and incorporate an additional 100,000 acres as national conservation areas.
"The Organ Mountains are the backdrop for one of the most breathtaking scenic views in our state. Doña Ana County residents have been working for years to develop plans that would ensure these views are protected," said Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the bill's sponsor. "I'm very glad that we now have a bill that will do just that, even while ensuring the public continues to have access to this extraordinary space."
Not everyone is sure the public would continue to have enough access.
Wilderness designations prohibit almost all motorized equipment and transportation on public lands, with some exceptions made to allow ranchers to use motorized vehicles to maintain grazing facilities.
But some ranchers are concerned those exceptions are too narrow to get the job done, and instead want to create a new land-management designation that preserves the area from energy development but maintains their access.
"Not all lands need to be completely locked up like under the Wilderness Act," said Jerry Schickedanz, chairman of People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, who is scheduled to testify at the hearing.
The group is also concerned that restrictions on law enforcement within a wilderness designation would complicate the U.S. Border Patrol's efforts to battle drug cartels.
Under the bill, lands necessary for effective law enforcement would be exempted from the designation, according to a fact sheet on Bingaman's Web site.
After successful House hearing, Devil's Staircase heads to Senate
In Oregon, S. 1272 from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) would designate the Devil's Staircase -- named for a series of staggering waterfalls -- as federally protected wilderness, banning logging or road development.
The 30,000 acres are among the last intact stretches of old-growth forest on Oregon's coastal range, said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that nearly 90 percent of the proposed area is covered by trees more than a century old.
The bill would also incorporate portions of the Franklin and Wasson creeks into the Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
"This is an area that has been proposed for wilderness since the 1970s," Pedery said. "We're finally in a Congress that seems ready to make it happen."
Management responsibility for the acreage is split between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. At a House hearing on companion legislation H.R. 2888 on Thursday, officials from both agencies spoke in support of the wilderness designations.
Land exchanges in Alaska, Nevada up for review
The committee will also hear testimony the following bills:
S. 522, which would provide for the resolution of claims from the Bering Straits Native Corporation and the state of Alaska to land adjacent to Salmon Lake and conveyance other lands to the Bering Straits Native Corporation.
S. 865 and H.R. 1442, which would provide for the sale of the federal government's reversionary interest in approximately 60 acres of land in Salt Lake City.
S. 881, which provides for the settlement of certain claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
S. 940, which would convey certain federal land located in Clark and Nye counties to the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Oct. 8, at 2:30 p.m. in Dirksen 366.
Witnesses: Witnesses include Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Mike Pool; Jay Jensen, deputy undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment for the Department of Agriculture; Oscar Vásquez Butler, vice-chair, Doña Ana County board of commissioners in New Mexico; Jerry Schickedanz, chairman of People for Preserving Our Western Heritage; Byron Mallott, Sealaska Corporation in Juneau, Alaska; and Bob Claus, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau, Alaska.