Congressional Update: Wilderness Worth Defending

The great wilderness advocate, author and philosopher Edward Abbey once said that the idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders. He was right, of course, but on July 26, in a small hearing room on Capitol Hill, wilderness got a little of both.

That day a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources held a legislative hearing on H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act. While the bill wouldn't actually de-designate any wilderness areas, it would open about 60 million acres of public land now protected from industrial development, forever prohibiting those lands—many of which have outstanding wilderness quality—from inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. It would undermine decades of work to protect our nation's natural heritage and reward polluters and developers of all stripes. It would be better titled the Great Outdoors Giveaway Act.

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt testified against the legislation, calling the measure “the most radical, over-reaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of our public lands laws that has been proposed in my lifetime.”

Also in strong opposition were two witnesses from the Obama Administration —Harris Sherman, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, and Bob Abbey, Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These two gentlemen are responsible for managing the more than 60 million acres targeted by H.R. 1581.

Sherman's testimony focused on the value of protecting our nation's roadless public lands, approximately 54 million of which would be affected by the bill. He pointed out that roadless areas cover 300 municipal watersheds providing clean drinking water for millions of American's, as well as being refuges for 65 percent of all endangered species and providing countless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Instead of passing sweeping, indiscriminate legislation to remove Wilderness Study Area protections for 6.6 million acres of BLM land, Director Abbey suggested that Congress address these areas individually and work with stakeholders and local interest groups to pass legislation which would designate new wilderness. He specifically mentioned the 2010 Omnibus Public Lands legislation which designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness, all of which were formed with local input and enjoyed broad local support.

Despite the controversy, the Committee on Natural Resources leadership has indicated its intention to move this legislation, perhaps as early as this fall. The bill will be closely monitored, with many wilderness advocates fighting to ensure that these 60 million acres maintain their wilderness character, so that they may one day be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Public Lands Threats Beyond the Border

On July 8, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing on H.R. 1505, the so-called National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The breadth and reach of this legislation is astonishing.

The bill proposes to suspend 36 different environmental and natural resources laws in order to give the Department of Homeland Security operational control over all land within 100 miles of the United States' border. The list of these 36 laws includes fundamental environmental laws such as the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as more obscure but important measures that protect bald eagles and Native American burial sites and ensure the navigability of ports and waterways.

The bill is ostensibly aimed at curtailing crossings of the southern border with Mexico, but is so broad as to actually allow Border Patrol to wall off Oregon's public beaches, close public access to the Cape Cod National Seashore and the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or build paramilitary installations in the Everglades wilderness. It would give the Border Patrol nearly unfettered access to, and authority over, land containing two-thirds of the American population and approximately nine entire states.

At the hearing, the bill's sponsor, Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) acknowledged that the bill would need changes before it could be approved by the committee. It is not clear when the committee plans to act on this legislation, but it will continue to be tracked closely.