A legislative proposal to expand the Alpine Lakes wilderness area in Washington's Cascade Range is fueling anticipation that Congress might be working toward another major public lands bill that could preserve millions of acres across the West.
The Alpine Lakes wilderness bill, sponsored by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) and approved by the House last week, would extend the highest level of federal protection to an additional 22,100 acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests, where 390,000 acres are already formal wilderness.
Donald Parks, president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society in Redmond, Ore., said expanding the Alpine Lakes wilderness area would help buffer the prized region from encroaching development. "Sooner or later, large patches of undeveloped land without some kind of very strong protective overlay come under threat of development," Parks said. "We fear it is only a matter of time."
In addition to the new wilderness acreage, the bill would designate 27.4 miles of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and the entire Pratt River as national wild and scenic rivers, ensuring that "these very, very special places" would remain free-flowing and pristine, said Bonnie Rice, associate director of river protection at American Rivers in Seattle.
But a growing number of wilderness advocates and other stakeholder groups believe Congress will consider the Alpine Lakes proposal, along with roughly a dozen other wilderness bills, as a single legislative measure similar to the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which President Obama signed into law last March.
The omnibus bill established 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas in nine states -- from the San Gabriel Mountains of California to the Appalachian Trail in Virginia -- covering almost as much land as the 2.4 million acres designated during the entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency (Land Letter, March 5, 2009).
"The conventional wisdom around here is that the [wilderness] bills will get packaged together into a large omnibus package like last year," said Paul Spitler, associate director of the Wilderness Society's national wilderness campaigns program. "That's the hope and expectation at this point, but when that might occur, who knows?"
Rice, the American Rivers official, added, "I think that's definitely where we're headed."
A second omnibus?
A second omnibus wilderness bill would further efforts by the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to greatly expand the 46-year-old National Wilderness Preservation System, which currently includes more than 109 million acres of U.S. public lands, mostly in national forests and national parks and on Bureau of Land Management holdings.
The 2.1 million acres in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was the largest addition to the wilderness system since the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which extended the highest federal protection to 3.5 million acres of BLM lands in the Mojave Desert.
Sources say it is too early to tell what specific proposals might fit into an omnibus package, but there is no shortage of wilderness bills moving through Congress.
Among them is the 24-million-acre "Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act," sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and supported by more than 100 House colleagues. It would extend the government's highest protective status to lands in five Western states: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming (Land Letter, June 11, 2009).
Another major bill, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would designate 9.4 million acres in Utah as "America's Red Rock Wilderness," including portions of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and areas adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Land Letter, Oct. 1, 2009).
Other significant proposals include Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," establishing 670,000 acres of national forest in Montana as wilderness, and an 850,000-acre Colorado wilderness proposal from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) that has drawn recent opposition from the Obama administration (E&E Daily, March 12).
More modest bills include Rep. John Salazar's (D-Colo.) bill to extend wilderness protection across 63,475 acres of southwestern Colorado, and Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) 16,000-acre Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness proposal for central Oregon.
While some bills enjoy greater support than others -- both in Congress and among stakeholder groups -- the fact that so many new areas are being nominated for protection is indicative of a "growing resurgence" in public interest in preserving pristine natural resources, said Bob Freimark, acting regional director for the Wilderness Society's Pacific Northwest regional office in Seattle.
"There are areas that are very special to people, and they want to make sure those values are going to be protected, now and in the future," Freimark said. "People want to make sure these areas are there for their children and their grandchildren to enjoy. They want to make sure the lands are protected forever."
Efforts to expand the nation's wilderness portfolio have generated negative feedback among some groups, however, especially in the West, where rural economies are closely tied to natural resource extraction, motorized recreation and tourism.
Wilderness designations carry particular implications for BLM and the Forest Service, both of which are required to manage their holdings for multiple uses -- including oil and gas drilling, hardrock mining, timber harvesting and a variety of recreational uses.
By contrast, wilderness areas are by definition devoid of human impacts, or as the 1964 law states, areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." That means only the lowest-impact activities are allowed, such as hiking, canoeing and in some cases limited hunting and fishing.
Such restrictions are especially troublesome for the energy sector, which has pushed in recent years for greater access to public lands, both for expanded oil and gas drilling and for the siting of renewable energy plants such as wind farms and solar arrays. Roughly a third of the country's domestic energy is produced on lands managed by the Interior Department.
"Public lands that have been historically managed as multi-use and have allowed oil and gas activities, recreational activities and grazing activities are bit by bit being eroded, and little by little, multiple-use lands are being taken away," said Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute. "I think there are reasonable concerns that the multi-use concept is at risk as more wilderness legislation is proposed. That's a real concern."
Striking a balance
At least one proposal in Congress is attempting to balance the economic and environmental trade-offs.
Montana's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," introduced by Tester last July, allows for extensive wilderness designations in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai national forests. But it would also set minimum quotas for timber harvesting from federal lands and encourage other economic activities in certain areas.
Supporters say the bill, which has been endorsed by Montana's senior senator, Max Baucus (D), and Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), strikes the proper balance between jobs, recreation and conservation. But critics representing a wide swath of interest groups -- including environmentalists, loggers and ranchers -- remain concerned that the bill does not provide enough safeguards for their constituents.
Meanwhile, Montana's sole representative in the House, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), said he would not support the Tester bill in its current form, citing concerns about the bill's logging provisions and potential lawsuits from environmental groups.
"Unless you do something to solve the problem of people standing in the way of managing our forests the way we want them to be managed, you haven't done anything," Rehberg said in January (Land Letter, Jan. 28).
Observers say that the picking apart of individual bills is why omnibus packages have a distinct advantage in Congress. The political reality is that multi-part bills crafted by various elected leaders who represent distinct districts in different regions of the country tend to enjoy broader support.
There is also a procedural advantage, especially in the Senate, where a single lawmaker can object to a bill, dragging the process out over a longer period.
"There's simply not enough time to pass each one of the bills individually," said Spitler, the Wilderness Society official who helped craft last year's omnibus bill. "The only viable mechanism to get these bills approved is to have them considered all at once."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.