In Congress: Pecking Away at a Public Lands Agenda

Your Wilderness - August 2012

Although the bird most often associated with July is the bald eagle, action last month by the House Committee on Natural Resources focused on safeguarding the habitat of the critically endangered California condor. The committee considered two lands bills to help the preservation of this raptor's historical and rehabilitative range.

At the end of June, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands held a hearing on a bill introduced by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) to protect approximately 63,000 acres of California's Los Padres National Forest as wilderness (H.R. 4109). The area offers natural beauty and unique opportunities for hiking, fishing, and camping, and equally important is its proximity to the critical California condor breeding grounds at Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary. The bill also includes additions to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, with protections for Upper Piru Creek, Upper Sespe Creek, Mono Creek, and Indian Creek. The measure was supported by a number of conservation, outdoor recreation, and local business groups.

In July, the committee favorably reported Rep. Sam Farr's (D-CA) Pinnacles National Park proposal (H.R. 3641) to the House floor. The California Democrat's legislation would move Pinnacles National Monument into the National Park System, protecting both natural and cultural assets as well as much of the ancestral home range of the California condor. Specifically, it would preserve Native American and early settler heritage sites, protect 32 species of flora and fauna, and safeguard the area's unique rock formations. Ken Burns, producer of PBS's “The National Parks: America's Best Idea,” submitted a letter in support of H.R. 3641.

Pinnacles National ParkUnfortunately, amendments in committee ended Rep. Farr's proposal to add 2,905 acres of wilderness and denied authority for acquisition of private land to H.R. 3641, a restriction that the committee has previously imposed on legislation designating or expanding National Park System units. These actions run counter to the desires of locally based and broadly supported conservation efforts, and the Pew Environment Group will endeavor to improve the modified bills.

On July 9, Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures Act (H.R. 6086). Unlike other bills (such as H.R. 4089) that would threaten wilderness protections under the guise of expanding opportunities for outdoorsmen, this legislation simply does what it says: protects the outdoors while providing new opportunities for the public to access public lands that are now “landlocked” by adjoining private lands. Through an inventory of access routes to public lands and authority to purchase easements where access is needed, the act seeks to ensure that all may enjoy hunting and fishing in these places.

On July 11, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced legislation that would designate the Berryessa Snow Mountain region as a National Conservation Area (S. 3375), protecting 319,000 acres of public lands in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Yolo counties and promoting recreational opportunities across the region. The legislation would consolidate all currently owned federal lands within the NCA under one management plan that would safeguard wildlife (including bald eagles), improve water quality, and boost opportunities for camping, rafting, and horseback riding. The proposal is a companion piece to a bill introduced by Reps. Mike Thompson (D-CA), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), and John Garamendi (D-CA) in May (H.R. 5545) and has the support of local elected officials, business owners, farmers, and conservation and recreation groups.

Hermosa Creek Watershed Finally, on July 18, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act (S. 3400), which has the support of local elected officials, as well as recreation and conservation groups, and would safeguard more than 107,000 acres as a watershed protection area, including 37,236 acres of wilderness, in the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado. The legislation preserves a wild place known for its biologically diverse forests and vast herds of deer and elk.

Aside from the Pinnacles National Park proposal above, 11 wilderness bills have received hearings in the House Natural Resources Committee, though none have been reported by the committee to the House floor.  By comparison, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has voted to report out five public lands bills, while several others await markup. The Pew Environment Group will continue to work for passage of these bills as the summer progresses and remains optimistic that we'll see more action before this Congress adjourns.