In Congress: A Mostly Rough Month for Wilderness

Your Wilderness - July 2012

June was a busy month in Washington for the Campaign for America's Wilderness, though not in the way we had hoped. The weather heated up, along with the rhetoric, as Congress debated anti-wilderness and forest management provisions included in H.R. 2578, the somewhat misnamed Conservation and Economic Growth Act. On a more positive note, yet another wilderness bill was introduced, bringing the number we are working to enact in this Congress to 24.

H.R. 2578 contains provisions by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), to give the Department of Homeland Security operational control—as it alone deems necessary—over all public land managed by the Departments of Interior or Agriculture.  This includes places such as California's Joshua Tree National Park and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. With this authority, federal agents could construct roads and fences, patrol by vehicle and aircraft, install surveillance equipment, and build forward operating bases on any of these federal lands.

The legislation originally allowed border agents to ignore 36 environmental and biodiversity preservation laws, international agreements, and public processes within a 100-mile band along the nation's northern and southern borders. When it came to a vote, that number had been cut to 16 environmental laws, though it still included the Wilderness Act. This map illustrates the scope of the affected area and the additional 600-million-plus acres of national parks, monuments, Indian reservations, wilderness, wildlife refuges, and other at-risk lands.

Significantly, the Department of Homeland Security itself claims that the legislation is unnecessary, and it opposes the bill.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) offered an amendment to strike the provision, but it was defeated, 247-177.

Also included in H.R. 2578 is legislation from Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) to transfer approximately 100,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corporation to be logged and developed. These lands include century-old trees and other biologically diverse stands in the Tongass, America's largest national forest and the heart of one the world's largest temperate rain forests.

The transfer plan is part of an effort to alter the outstanding claims that Sealaska has under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, passed by Congress in 1971. But more than 300 prominent scholars have voiced their “serious concern” about the bill. They estimate that the legislation would result in a twelvefold increase in logging of America's most precious old-growth stands.

In addition, the bill would transfer to Sealaska as many as 30 world-class hunting and fishing areas now open to the public.

Pew Environment Group staff contacted members of Congress to express strong opposition to these two provisions of the bill. However, H.R. 2578 eventually passed the House, 232-188, with 19 Republicans joining the opposition. The Senate has expressed no interest in acting on this package.

On a more positive note, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation June 21 to designate 126,554 acres of wilderness on the Olympic National Forest, which includes most of the remaining Inventoried Roadless Areas on the forest.

The Wild Olympics Wilderness & Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (H.R. 5995/S. 3329) would also protect 19 rivers and their major tributaries (a total of 464 river miles) as wild and scenic. If enacted, the legislation would designate the first new wilderness on the Olympic National Forest in nearly three decades and the first protected wild and scenic rivers on the Olympic Peninsula.

A bipartisan poll released last month by the Mellman Group (and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm) found overwhelming support for protecting these areas. Nearly two out of three (64 percent) likely voters polled supported the Wild Olympics bill. It is broadly supported by more than 185 Peninsula businesses, farms, faith leaders, local elected officials, and hunting, fishing, and recreation groups.

In announcing the legislation, Rep. Dicks, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year, highlighted the tourism draw of salmon and steelhead fishing but also acknowledged the intrinsic value of protecting these places as a legacy he can leave. “I hope people will think of me as a person who fought to protect Hood Canal, Puget Sound, take out the dams on the Elwha, and improve salmon fishing; a person who cares about the natural resources and this beautiful part of the country.”

For a part of the country as beautiful as the Olympic Peninsula, protecting it for future generations is a legacy we can all hope to leave.