In Congress: A Lion of a Month for Wilderness Legislation

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After a quiet start, the second session of the 112th Congress sprang to life in March, holding its first three hearings of the year on wilderness legislation—two in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. This welcome progress was presaged by the Leap Day introduction of the year's first wilderness bill, protecting areas along the California coast. Then, to close out an active March, legislation was introduced to designate wilderness in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests near Salt Lake City.

The Los Padres Conservation and Recreation Act (H.R. 4109), introduced by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) on February 29, would expand wilderness within the Los Padres National Forest. The proposal, which adds 63,576 acres to the Sespe, Matilija, and Dick Smith Wilderness Areas, will preserve outstanding examples of Chumash rock art and protect the upper watersheds of the Sespe, Piru, Mono, and Indian creeks. These lands are also home to black bear, mule deer, bobcat, mountain lion, and the California condor.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) introduced the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act (H.R. 4267) to protect more than 26,000 acres of national forest land in the central Wasatch Mountains. The bill would protect the watershed that provides water for over 60 percent of the Salt Lake City region, designating 15,000 acres of wilderness and 11,000 acres of special management area.

Rouge River (OR)On March 8, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a hearing on legislation concerning wilderness and wild and scenic river designations. Members took supporting testimony from the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service on the Rogue Wilderness Expansion Act (H.R. 3436), a measure, introduced by Oregon Representatives Peter DeFazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D), and Earl Blumenauer (D), that will designate 58,000 acres of wilderness along the Rogue River in southwest Oregon. The bill would protect old-growth forest, countless native species, and the unmatched fishing opportunities that the area offers.

Additionally, members considered the Pine Forest Range Recreational Enhancement Act (H.R. 3377) introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV). The bill will designate as wilderness around 26,000 acres within the Blue Lakes and Alder Creek Wilderness Study Areas. The area is home to mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and chukar partridge, and also encompasses a series of glacial lakes popular with anglers. Congressman Amodei called the legislation a “testament to what can be accomplished when people are focused and committed to a desirable outcome for all,” citing the numerous interest groups and governmental bodies that were involved in promoting a positive outcome.

These two bills, along with wilderness legislation regarding San Juan County in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana were also heard by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests on March 22.

San Juan Mountains (CO)The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act (S. 1635) was introduced by Colorado Senators Mark Udall (D) and Michael Bennet (D). The bill will protect nearly 55,000 acres of public land in southwest Colorado, including 33,000 acres as wilderness. The area is one of the most geologically diverse mountain ranges in the world and is home to the threatened Canada lynx.

Introduced by Montana Senator Max Baucus (D), the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (S. 1774) will add 50,500 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,700 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness. The legislation will also designate 208,000 acres as a Conservation Management Area and prioritizes noxious-weed eradication and prevention on the protected lands.

BLM and Forest Service representatives voiced their support for the bills, and in the case of the Forest Service, expressed interest in working with sponsors and the subcommittee to clarify language in some of the bills, such as making an accommodation in Sen. Udall's bill for the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, the path of which crosses into the proposed wilderness.

Closing out a productive month, the House National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Committee held a March 29 hearing during which they received testimony on two more important bills: the 3,125-acres Maine Coastal Islands Wilderness Act (H.R. 2984), introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME), and the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act (H.R. 1241), sponsored by Rep. Ben Lujan (D-NM), which includes over 21,000 acres of wilderness.

Three hearings and the introduction of two bills may not mark a sea change in the way this Congress plans to address wilderness proposals, but it does signal that there is some appetite for public lands bills built on consensus and collaboration. The Campaign for America's Wilderness will continue to track this legislation closely and support Congress's efforts to move forward with good wilderness proposals.

View Photos of These Areas Up for Protection: