In Congress: Numerous Wilderness Bills Move in November

November could have been a real turkey on Capitol Hill, but instead turned out to be mostly gravy, as it was a banner month for action on wilderness legislation. Wilderness advocates have made steady progress toward new land protection this year, shepherding the introduction of 19 bills -- including two new ones -- in Congress. This month, with the leaves falling in the nation's capital, that hard work, and that of all the congressional bills' sponsors, finally blossomed.

On November 10, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources convened to consider five pieces of wilderness legislation covering Michigan, Washington, New Mexico, Oregon and Tennessee. Each of the bills below was favorably reported by voice vote, with few objections, and can now be considered by the full Senate.

  • S. 140, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act, which would protect more than 32,500 acres of wilderness along the shore of Lake Michigan—a wildly popular area for hunting, fishing, and boating.
  • S. 322, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act proposes to expand 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness by designating 22,100 acres of roadless lands as wilderness and parts of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic. This area near Seattle features glacier-cut valleys, old-growth forests, whitewater rivers, and strong native trout runs.
  • S. 667, the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act would establish a conservation area covering 235,000 acres northwest of Taos, including more than 21,000 acres of designated wilderness. The legislation would also protect the Rio Grande Gorge, one of the great bird migratory routes in the world, offering nesting places to falcons, eagles and hawks.
  • S. 766, the Devil's Staircase Wilderness Act would permanently protect nearly 30,000 acres of wilderness along Wassen Creek, one of the most remote and inaccessible places in Oregon. The old-growth rain forest in the Coast Range is home to many native species including threatened spotted owls, elk, black bear, mountain lions, river otter and mink.
  • S. 1090, the Tennessee Wilderness Act would expand five existing wilderness areas, including Sampson Mountain and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, as well as create a new Upper Bald River wilderness area. The proposal aims to preserve important watersheds and habitat for native brook trout, black bear, bobcat, grey fox and white-tailed deer. It would also protect popular migratory, breeding and wintering habitat for numerous bird species. November also saw the introduction of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (S. 1774) and legislation to protect Oregon's Rogue River (H.R. 3436).

The Rocky Mountain Front is an area in northwest Montana where the snowy spine of the Rockies meets the seemingly endless expanse of the Great Plains. Largely undeveloped, it has accurately been called America's Serengeti. It is the only place in the United States where grizzly bears still stir every spring and leave the mountains to roam the open prairie. Driving near the proposal, one is nearly as likely to spot a heard of elk or a wolf as they are another vehicle. This awesome abundance of wildlife is due to the unspoiled wilderness and roadless areas on the Front.

Sponsored by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), this bill would protect an additional 275,000 acres of public land along the Front, including adding 50,500 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,700 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness. The remaining 208,000 acres would be protected as Conservation Management Areas aimed at noxious-weed eradication and prevention.

This legislation arose from collaboration between ranchers, conservationists, and sportsmen formed after the Bush Administration proposed oil and gas drilling on the Front. After working with Senator Baucus to defeat that proposal, the group turned its attention to how it might best permanently protect this incredible landscape and preserve a traditional way of life. This collaborative group and legislation is an excellent example of what's possible when people work together to craft a common vision for public land management.

Finally, another thing to be thankful for, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to designate approximately 58,000 acres of wilderness, and 143 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers along Oregon's Rogue River.

The Rogue is an Oregon icon. Many thousands from around the West flock to its remote canyon walls and cool waters every year to enjoy hiking, fishing, world-class rafting, and camping. The Rogue is one of the only rivers that flows from the Cascades Range to the Pacific; and the river and its tributaries support some of the healthiest populations of salmon and steelhead -- and best spawning habitat -- anywhere on the west coast.

The area's towering old-growth forests and rugged river terrain creates an important migration corridor, and resident habitat, for bear, elk, cougar, osprey, bald eagles, and hundreds of other species of flora and fauna. With the Rogue River and all its salmon cutting right through the heart of it, this place is truly defined by its wild character.

Congress is largely finished with moving public land legislation this year, but as the second session of the 112th Congress gets underway early in 2012, one should expect these two incredibly deserving proposals to get the consideration such wild places warrant.