During the last session of Congress many wilderness and park bills were reported out of committee, but have not yet been voted on by the entire legislative body. Many of these bills will protect important wildlands across the country. And the recent election of many anti-wilderness legislators means that if these bills are not passed in the Lame Duck session coming up, these wildlands may not garner protection for a long time into the future.
At one time or another, I have visited at least a portion of the lands included in the major wilderness legislation before Congress. So I know first hand what these lands offer such as the Chihuahua desert in the granite ribbed Organ Mountains of New Mexico, the mossy rainforests of the Devil’s Staircase in Oregon’s Coast Range, the grassy plains in Buffalo Grasslands in South Dakota, and the diverse Southern Appalachian forests that line the Bald River in Tennessee. All of these lands are worthy of wilderness protection but their future is uncertain if legislation is not passed in this session of Congress.
The political risk for these lands is displayed well in New Mexico. Senator Bingamam of New Mexico is one of the sponsors of the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks Wilderness Act that would protect hundreds of thousands of acres in the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces New Mexico. But the newly elected Congressman Republican Steve Pearce whose district includes the Organ Mountains is opposed to any new wilderness. A similar situation exists in many of the districts where new wilderness and/or parks are proposed. So it’s now or never for many of the areas proposed for wilderness in the last session of Congress.
Voting on individual bills in the limited time left in this session means few, if any of these bills, would become law despite obvious support from Congress. As a result Senator Bingaman, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, has decided to bundle as many as 60 separate bills, including many wilderness proposals into one Omnibus lands bill for passage. A similar technique was used in the 2009 Congressional session to garner wilderness designation for many areas in the country including wilderness designations in Utah, Oregon, Virginia, Michigan and California.
The status of two major pieces of wilderness legislation is unknown at this point. Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, (S. 1470), that would designate 669,160 acres of wilderness and 336,205 acres of recreation, protection, and special management areas on three national forests in Montana–the Kootenai, Beaver Head-Deerlodge and Lolo National Forests remains uncertain. Likewise Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s 333,000 acre Boulder White Cloud proposal (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreations Act, or CIEDRA,) is still up in the air.
Both failed to make it out of committee, and Senator Bingaman is reluctant to include legislation that has not already passed through the committee process. Of the two, Simpson’s Boulder White Cloud is the least controversial and probably should be included in any Omnibus legislation.
Senator Tester’s bill is more problematic especially on Tester’s insistence for a mandated logging quota, which is not popular in Congress. Whether Tester’s will be in the Omnibus bill is unknown, however, Tester’s staff hopes that the Senator can circumvent the Omnibus bill process by attaching his legislation to other must pass legislation as a rider. Given the large amount of new wilderness that would be created, one can hope that some compromise can be reached that would enable the basic outline of this legislation to be enacted, but without out the egregious timber mandates.
Two other major pieces of wilderness legislation not likely to be included in the Omnibus legislation are the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) and America’s Red Rock Act. Both are ambitious and among the most important wildlands legislation proposed in recent years. As a consequence, they are controversial in the states affected, though they have significant support across the nation. NREPA legislation would protect 24 million acres of the finest wildlands in five states including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon. The bill basically would protect what Congress has already approved–since it legislatively protects the major and minor roadless lands of this spectacular region.
America’s Red Rocks Wilderness Act would provide protection to 9.4 million acres of Utah’s canyon country. The canyon country is probably the most unique landscapes found anywhere on earth.
Any Omnibus lands bill will probably include national park legislation, including creation of a 89,000 acre Valles Caldera National Park in New Mexico as well as many park studies such as a proposal to evaluate New York’s Hudson River Valley for its potential as a national park unit.
However, with regards to wilderness legislation, the following wilderness proposals are likely to be included in any Omnibus legislation:
ARIZONA: The Tumacacori Highlands are south of Tucson along the Arizona-Mexico border. One of the largest roadless areas in the state, the 83,000-acre area consists of rugged cliffs and ridgelines of three mountain ranges culminating in Atascosa Peak at 6,249′ elevation. Home to jaguars, elegant trogons, gray hawks, mountain lions, javelina, coati, five-stripped sparrow, Mexican vine snake, and tropical kingbird, the area has some of the highest biodiversity of rare species of any area in the U.S.
CALIFORNIA: There are four bills proposed for California. One would up grade Pinnacles National Monument to National Park status, adding 3,000 acres to wilderness status. Originally designated as a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt, Pinnacles was recently the site of a successful condor restoration effort.
One of the most iconic landscapes in California, the Santa Lucia Range rises dramatically 6000 feet from the Pacific Ocean. The Big Sur Forest Management Act would add 2000 acres to the 240,800 acre Ventana Wilderness in the Santa Lucia Range and designates Arroyo Seco, Carmel and San Antonio rivers and the San Carpoforo and Big Creeks to the National Wild and Scenic River system.
The Beauty Mountain Agua Tibia Wilderness Act, (H.R. 4304), would protect 21,000 acres in southern California near San Diego by adding lands to the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Wilderness areas. These areas exhibit granite boulders and scattered oak groves mixed with chaparral,
Finally the biggie in California is The California Desert Protection Act, (S. 2921), introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein. This expansive bill would protect nearly 1.5 million acres of southern California’s desert lands by creating two new National Monuments (Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow National Monuments), adding Wilderness acreage, expanding Joshua tree and Death Valley National Parks, and protecting the desert’s historic treasures like Route 66.
COLORADO: Like California, there are several pieces of Colorado wilderness legislation before Congress. One is the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act that would add 33,383 acres to the wilderness system by expanding the existing Mt. Sneffels and Lizard Head Wilderness areas, and the establishment of the McKenna Peak Wilderness. In addition it would protect another 28,293 as the Sheep Mountain Special Management while prohibiting oil and gas development in Naturita Canyon.
To the north of the San Juan Mountains near Vail, the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act proposes protection of nearly 166,000 acres. The original proposal was trimmed by nearly 100,000 acres to appease mountain bikers (who in so many ways are no different than the motorized thrillcraft crowd). The legislation proposes quite a number of small wilderness areas, including in the Williams Fork Mountains and Ten Mile Range as well as a Red Table Special Management Area. Additions to the Holy Cross, Eagle Nest, and Ptarmigan Wildernesses are included in the bill.
The most expansive legislation is Rep. Diana DeGette Colorado Wilderness Act of 2009. The bill would protect 34 areas totaling 850,000 acres. Included in the bill are 14,000 foot summits like Red Cloud Peak and red rock canyons of the Dolores River. Most of the lands are managed by the BLM like the Little Book Cliffs, Granite Creek, Palisades and Unaweep areas by Grand Junction as well as Browns Canyon, Beaver Creek and Grape Creek near Canyon City.
MICHIGAN: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act would protect 32,557 acres of Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
NEW MEXICO: The El Río Grande Del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act includes 235,000 acres of the Rio Grande’s magnificent gorge and, among other things, protect 13,420 acre Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and 8,000 acre Rio San Antonio Wilderness.
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act would protect would protect 270,000 acres of wilderness and 110,000 acres as a National Conservation Area near Las Cruces. In addition to the granite spires of the Organ Mountains, portions of the Robledo, Doña Ana and Potrillo mountains would be given some overlay of protection.
OREGON: There is one thing that the Coast Range of Oregon does well and it is grow trees—giant trees. Unfortunately most of this natural capital has been logged off. One of the few places in the Coast Range where you can see forests as they once stood in magnificent abundance is Wassen Creek drainage near Reedsport. A cascade along Wassen Creek gives rise to the name Devil’s Staircase. The Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Act, would protect 29,650 acres of wilderness in one of the most remote parts of these mountains and roughly 19 miles of Wild and Scenic River.
In eastern Oregon lies the John Day River, one of the longest undammed tributaries of the Columbia left. And as a consequence, the river is a major spawning ground for steelhead and Chinook salmon. The river flows through a wonderful canyon for much of its length that is only accessible by canoe, kayak and raft. Bordering the river are two proposed wilderness areas each of about 8,000 acres: Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock proposed wilderness areas. Both are cloaked in lovely bunchgrass/sage a community that supports elk, mule deer, and home to endangered pygmy rabbits.
A third bill that may make its way on to the Omnibus bill is the Wild Rogue proposed wilderness. The Wild Rogue lies in southwest Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. Famous for whitewater rafting, and salmon/steelhead fishing, the Wild Rogue proposal would protect 58,000 acres as wilderness and 143 miles of stream as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
SOUTH DAKOTA: America has very little of its native prairie in any protected status. Most of the plains have been carved up by till farming, and the rest is grazed by livestock. Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act would correct this by designating 48,000 acres as wilderness in the Indian Creek, Red Shirt and Chalk Hills areas of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland on the borders of Badlands NP. Walking these vast open breathing spaces reminds me of being on the vastness of tundra in Alaska. It’s a sense of freedom that is more difficult to experience in more forested terrain. As with any designated wilderness, livestock grazing will continue. This is particularly ironic since Tony Dean, who was an outdoor writer in South Dakota, railed against welfare ranchers and their impact on the state for decades. However language could be inserted into the legislation to permit buyouts of grazing privileges so that eventually bison, not cattle, will be grazing these lands.
TENNESSEE: The Tennessee Wilderness Act would designate a total of 20,000 acres as federal wilderness, including additions to five existing wilderness, and one new wilderness, the Upper Bald River Wilderness. All of these areas are within the Cherokee National Forest in the mountains against the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
UTAH: The Wasatch Mountains provide the dramatic backdrop for Salt Lake City and other communities. These mountains provide not only an amazing recreational opportunity for the bulk of Utah’s citizens, but they are an important source of water for these communities. The Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Management Act recognize these important values by creating 15,500 acres of new wilderness and 10,000 of Special Management Area.
WASHINGTON: The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act would add 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and 10 miles of the Pratt River and 30 miles of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is one of Washington’s most spectacular wild areas with high granite peaks and dozens of pristine mountain lakes. This legislation helps to protect a lot of the lower elevation old growth forests.
WEST VIRGINIA: The Monongahela Conservation Act would create the 6,042 acre North Fork Mountain Wilderness. This proposal was shaved down from its original 9,000 plus acres to keep the major trail to the mountain top open to mountain bikers. Like the Hidden Gems legislation in Colorado, more and more wildlands are being compromised by mountain bikers who are nothing more than non-motorized thrillcraft.