Mike Matz: Unfinished Business

Your Wilderness - January 2013

The 112th Congress, which wrapped up this month, managed to keep the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff but left a considerable amount of unfinished business. Among the uncompleted work, this Congress didn't enact any of more than two dozen wilderness bills, some put forward by retiring members and almost all enjoying bipartisan support. Now it's up to the 113th Congress, which also convened this month.

It's worth noting that we have been here before. At the end of the 110th Congress in 2008, members didn't get around to adding any new places to the National Wilderness Protection System. But many of the unfinished wilderness bills were assembled into a package in the 111th Congress, and that omnibus was taken up as one of the earliest orders of business. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act passed on March 26, 2009, and four days later became the first conservation bill signed into law by President Barack Obama. Representatives of The Pew Charitable Trusts and of our partner organizations attended the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act was the largest expansion of U.S. wilderness in 15 years, adding 2.1 million acres in nine states to the National Wilderness Preservation System. It protected more than 1,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, and included national conservation areas, national monuments, and national heritage areas.

As the incomparable Yogi Berra once said, “It's déjà vu all over again.” We believe finishing up some of the leftover business, such as protecting our wild places permanently as a gift to future generations, should be one of the first orders of business in this new Congress. Members have a long tradition on Capitol Hill of putting aside their differences to find solutions, even in some of the most heated partisan times.

Rio Grande del Norte, New MexicoAmerica's public domain has often provided the catalyst. In 1964, for example, during the bitter fight over civil rights, the 88th Congress passed the Wilderness Act nearly unanimously, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it. In the mid-1980s, when politicians were again sharply divided over the size and role of government, President Ronald Reagan signed 43 conservation bills into law, which added more than 10 million acres in 27 states.

After the inaction of the last two years, members of the new Congress on both sides of the aisle can complete the task already begun. Congress will soon have before it as many as two dozen wilderness bills that awaited passage last session. If members come together and pass these measures, more than 2 million additional acres of ancient forests, colorful canyons, and sagebrush deserts in 11 states could be bequeathed to future generations of Americans. These places include Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan, New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge, Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, the East and West Pioneer Mountains in Montana, and the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho.

Wilderness protection provides a remarkably simple opportunity for congressional leaders to find that bipartisan cooperation and to act in the best interests of the country. It's what the American people hope for, and saving some of this great land for those who will follow should rank high on the agenda. 

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