The House Natural Resources Committee is poised to advance its first wilderness bills since the GOP took control of the House three years ago.
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) yesterday said the panel next month would vote on a pair of bills to designate nearly 60,000 acres of wilderness in Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and in northwest Nevada's Pine Forest Range.
The two GOP bills would be the first wilderness measures the committee has passed since the 111th Congress, according to conservationists. The 112th Congress became the first since the 1960s not to designate a single acre of new wilderness.
Many conservationists view wilderness as the highest form of public lands protection, while some Republicans view it as overly restrictive. It preserves land in its most primitive state by barring new roads, motorized recreation and permanent structures.
"These are not easy issues," Hastings said during a committee hearing yesterday. "They require careful consideration and thoughtful action to ensure they are done right."
Hastings said Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), a member of the Natural Resources panel, has been "working overtime" to get H.R. 163 passed, collaborating with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who sponsored a companion bill. The bill would preserve 32,500 acres on the northern Michigan lakeshore, which in 2011 was named by ABC's "Good Morning America" as the most beautiful place in America. The measure enjoys support from the state's other Republican members.
"I'm committed to working with them because I believe it's possible to reach an appropriate resolution that accomplishes their goal," Hastings said.
With the committee's approval, Benishek's bill would be within a House vote of the president's desk, snapping Congress' nearly four-year drought of new wilderness designations.
The Senate passed Levin's bill by unanimous consent in June.
Rep. Mark Amodei's (R-Nev.) H.R. 433 would designate 26,000 acres of wilderness within the Blue Lakes and Alder Creek wilderness study areas while releasing 1,500 acres of protected lands into multiple use.
Conservationists praised the pending markup.
"Those members are probably pleased to hear it," said Mike Matz, director of U.S. public lands for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "They've been working hard with local stakeholders, have put together proposals with strong backing in their districts and have impressed upon committee leadership their interest in seeing them move. So it comes as welcome news all the way around."
The committee this summer did pass new wilderness designations in Oregon as part of H.R. 1526, a larger forestry package.
But the bill, which would double logging levels on national forests, received a veto threat from the White House and was panned by conservation groups as a rollback of environmental protections.