Public Lands:

Campaign for America's Wilderness director discusses hurdles to passing wilderness bills

The 110th Congress has yet to send a wilderness bill to the president's desk--with the Democrats in control, and several key opponents no longer in the picture, why hasn't momentum picked up for wilderness legislation? During today's OnPoint, Mike Matz, executive director at the Campaign for America's Wilderness, discusses why wilderness proponents have not been more successful with legislation in the last year. He explains what the main obstacles are for wilderness issues and previews his organization's new ad campaign focusing on encouraging lawmakers and the public to address wilderness issues. Matz also explains how energy development may affect wilderness areas and wildlife.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. Mike, thanks for coming on the show.

Mike Matz: You bet, Monica. Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Mike, the 110th Congress has yet to send a wilderness bill to the president's desk. Why has this not happened in a Congress that's led by Democrats?

Mike Matz: It's not a Democratic or a Republican issue really. It's very bipartisan. And in the past we've seen Republican Congress is that have reported out legislation, enacted it, and the president has signed it. In fact, over the last five years, since the Campaign for America's Wilderness has been in existence, the Congress has passed 2.4 million acres worth of wilderness legislation, sent it on to the president and it's been signed. So, in this Congress, they're considering about 1.8 million acres, so almost as much has happened in the last Congress. But it's really because it's on a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, it's very bipartisan. And as you know in Congress there are certain things that enable the minority to keep things from happening, so in the Senate one particular senator can keep something from coming up on the floor. And that's kind of been what has happened in the first session, but I think the logjam is about to break and we will see quite a number of packages assembled that have a lot of different bills in them. The first one may in fact be this week; S2483 may pass with a whole slew of items, Republican and Democrat issues, including Wild Sky for Washington. So we may see the first one this week.

Monica Trauzzi: Your chief obstacle, Richard Pombo, is out of the picture at this point though. So were you expecting things to change more dramatically when he did leave, when he was no longer a chair of Resources?

Mike Matz: Yeah, when Chairman Pombo was in actually he wasn't our biggest hurdle. Our biggest hurdle really is on the local level, making sure that we have city councils and county commissioners that are supportive of these kinds of measures. And we are, in the West and in the East, finding increased support at the local level for these kinds of things because they see the economic advantages of it for the local communities. And so once it percolates up, Richard Pombo, when he was chairman, he let a lot of wilderness bills go through his committee and brought them up on the floor and sent them over to the president for signing. But now there's no doubt that with Chairman Rahall on the House side and Chairman Bingaman on the Senate side there is a renewed interest in more of these issues. So we're seeing that the committees are dealing with more of these bills, so we have about 18 bills right now, or I'm sorry, 12 bills that have been introduced and are in the process of moving through the committees, hearings, markups, and getting on to the House or Senate floor. And, again, that total may come to about 1.8 million acres, so that's a pretty hefty total for this Congress.

Monica Trauzzi: Any key pieces of legislation that you're looking at that need to get attention this year?

Mike Matz: Well, I again, I think that in the past when Chairman Pombo did these things they went through one at a time. Now, because of the obstructionists or dilatory tactics of some on the Senate side and maybe even a little on the House side, the committee staff have told us that they're going to be putting these into bigger packages. So like I said, S. 2483 may move this week on the Senate side. There is another Senate package that's waiting in the wings, S. 2180 that includes the Mount Hood wilderness. That may move sometime soon here. The House has talked about putting together a package too that includes a variety of wilderness bills, maybe some river bills as well, and bringing that to the floor. So what we're seeing this time around is the dynamics where they're putting these together, both in Democratic bills and Republican bills, and in that way ensuring that they will move.

Monica Trauzzi: And your organization has launched a new ad campaign this week to encourage lawmakers and the public to keep an eye on these issues. Talk about the campaign a bit and what your goals are and how you're hoping to impact members of Congress.

Mike Matz: Well, Monica, a lot of these things, you know, we have sort of a Washington centric view of things that this is the center of power and this is where everything happens and all these decisions are made. But what we wanted to make sure that we reminded Congress was that there are a lot of people across the country who really do want to see their special place protected. And so the campaign features a lot of people from West Virginia or Oregon or Colorado, ranchers and business owners that they really want to see these areas protected in their locality. You know, it puts a real face to this whole notion of protecting wilderness for future generations. It's interesting that the U.S. Forest Service has done some fairly extensive survey work and they find that seven out of 10 people across the country, a pretty big sample size, say that they somewhat or strongly favor more wilderness protection in this country. So really, what we're trying to demonstrate to Congress is that there is a lot of support for this out in the regions that they come from.

Monica Trauzzi: Opponents of some of these bills very often use the argument that they would limit access to people with disabilities and senior citizens. It's something that we hear in hearings very often. Is this a valid argument?

Mike Matz: Well, we don't think so. I mean we've had people with disabilities who've been strongly in support of wilderness protection. In fact, some of the people that are part of this ad campaign have been featured in their wheelchairs. We've had folks with disabilities come back to Washington to testify, to say that they are not impeded from going into these areas by wilderness designation. The Americans with Disability Act actually allows access for wheelchairs into wilderness areas. So it's a bit of a canard to say that people with disabilities or elderly people don't derive benefit from wilderness designation and it's been proven out. I think people just use that argument to try to undercut the support that we see in many quarters for that.

Monica Trauzzi: In his State of the Union address earlier this week the president spoke about expanding domestic drilling for oil and gas. If we were to expand drilling what kind of impact might this have on wilderness issues and what problems could that raise?

Mike Matz: Well, obviously the 1964 Wilderness Act prevents oil and gas drilling in wilderness areas. So once an area has been leased, it makes it much more difficult, especially if it's developed, to consider it for a wilderness designation to give this as a gift to future generations. So the stepped up leasing on the part of the administration does mean that we may end up seeing more roadless areas, more oil and gas development in some of these places. And it's not the wilderness so much that's affected, obviously it is, but the real problem is with wildlife. And so what we're seeing is that across the West, whether it's on the Otera Mesa in New Mexico or the Roan Plateau in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain front in Montana, the people who are really getting riled about this are the sportsman, people who like to fish, like to hunt and understand that disturbing wildlife habitat in this regard really hurts their opportunities for hunting. In fact, in the Roan Plateau I think there are studies that estimate that the mule population could be devastated because it's such an important migratory corridor. So it's not so much wilderness, obviously that's a concern, it's really wildlife habitat. And that's why we're seeing sportsman came out of the woodwork in opposition to the Bush administration plans to lease in these areas.

Monica Trauzzi: And final question on the alternative and renewable energy front. How big of a concern is energy development to you and getting energy from one place to another?

Mike Matz: Yeah, it's huge. Like any American we have to pay at the pump for gas that is now three dollars a gallon. We have to heat our homes. I mean what it is really, Monica, is a matter of balance. There are opportunities to lease for oil and gas, to develop coal resources, to do wind and solar power, and it's going to take a mix. Part of that mix should be protecting wilderness for future generations. We ought to have a balance here between our energy needs and our need to hand down a country that's in at least as good a shape as we've been given it.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Mike Matz: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]

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