Congressional Update: No Rest for Wilderness During August Recess

Members of Congress returned home for the August district work period, giving constituents the opportunity to meet with their senators and representatives about issues and legislation. For wilderness supporters, this meant an opportunity to discuss public lands protection efforts and to warn about some destructive anti-environmental measures currently before Congress, such as H.R. 1581/S. 1087, Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) and Sen. John Barrasso's (R-WY) Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act. Conservationists have dubbed this bill the “Great Outdoors Giveaway,” as it would strip current legislative and administrative protections from hundreds of roadless areas and wilderness study areas, from Alaska to Florida, covering approximately 60 million acres, an area equivalent to that of the state of Wyoming.

H.R. 1581 received a hearing in the House on July 26. Whether this bill advances further will depend a great deal on whether wilderness supporters contacted their members of Congress during August and continue that effort in the days and weeks ahead. Sportsmen used the recess to make their feelings known, with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and 270 hunting and fishing groups and businesses delivering a letter to Congress strongly opposing the legislation. When the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation somewhat hesitantly endorsed the legislation earlier in the month, the reaction from their fellow sportsmen caused them to quickly reverse course and join their colleagues in opposition.

With Congress now back in session, it is likely action on the legislation could happen as early as mid-September. But if opposition continues to rise, the bill may be put off further.

In happier news, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) attended four public meetings in western Montana to hear public reaction to the land protection proposal put forward by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, which would safeguard 270,000 acres of land in a variety of categories, including five areas totaling 67,000 acres for wilderness with most of the remainder remaining undeveloped. The Front, a spectacular wall of mountains that rises dramatically from the Great Plains northwest of Great Falls, is currently withdrawn from oil and gas leasing, thanks to legislation championed by Baucus in 2006. The vast mountain area behind the Front is largely protected by the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex and Glacier National Park. Aside from the extensive outdoor activities, the Front is famous for its wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk and grizzly bears. The current proposal, crafted over several years by ranchers, outfitters, sportsmen, private landowners and conservation groups with substantial public discussion, is designed to “keep the Front the way it is,” according to proponents.

According to the Great Falls Tribune, Baucus said his effort in 2006 to prevent oil and gas leasing on the Front “meant a lot to me” and he promised to decide soon whether he would introduce legislation. “I'm impressed with the effort that's gone into this, especially with the effort to compromise,” he said, “Bottom line, we want to find a solution that basically makes the most sense so we have a better idea what the future holds for the Front.” Information about the proposal can be found at the Save the Front website.

Back in Washington, the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests squeezed in a hearing prior to adjourning on August 3, taking testimony on S. 1024, the Organ Mountains-Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both of New Mexico, and S. 1090, the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2011, sponsored by Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The Obama Administration, represented by Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey and Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, testified fully in favor of both bills.

Chief Tidwell focused on the enormous public involvement that led to the legislation, first through the forest planning process and now continuing before the Subcommittee. “Congressional designation of these areas as wilderness would be the culmination of the process,” he said.

Director Abbey's testimony was almost poetic as he described the rich diversity, dramatic geology and unusual wildlife living in the Chihuahua Desert of Doña Ana County, NM. Thanking the subcommittee for the opportunity to engage in discussions that “advance the protection of some of America's most compelling landscapes,” Abbey stated, “Passage of this legislation will ensure that generations of New Mexicans and all Americans will be able to witness a golden eagle soar over the Sierra de las Uvas, hike the landmark Organ Mountains, or hunt in the volcanic outcroppings of the Potrillo Mountains.”

We anticipate a busy fall.