Analysis

Message from Mike Matz: On the Move

In Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon, wilderness legislation is moving forward. The progress these bills are making is due to you. When we ask for your help, you've given it. When we've said now is the time to send a letter or make a call, you've done it. In some instances, it's been vital to have you in the nation's capital, and you've taken time away from family and jobs to be here. What you've been doing is making a big difference, and we're appreciative—because we all want to save some wild places for the next generation, and we simply can't do it without you.

A member of the Durango, CO, City Council wrote a letter to the editor of the Durango Herald in support of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act; eight college students got a bird's-eye view of the place during an air tour by EcoFlight; and residents of Mountain Village pressed Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO) at a town hall meeting for action on the bill. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the measure Nov. 20, and the headline in the Durango Herald the next morning was “Lawmakers Unanimous for Hermosa Creek.” The act would safeguard 108,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest of southwestern Colorado, nearly 38,000 acres of which would be designated wilderness. You have to give credit where credit is due, and that's to the people who live there and the leaders they elect.

The following day, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed another wilderness bill, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would add 67,000 acres of public land to an iconic wilderness in northern Montana, the Bob Marshall, and establish a conservation area of another 208,000 acres. Afterward, a rancher from Teton County, MT, was quoted in the Missoulian newspaper: “Folks on both ends of the political spectrum hashed this legislation out,” he said. The bill “has been custom-tailored to meet the needs of traditional uses while also protecting the beauty of the Front for future generations.”

That kind of persistence has paid off handsomely in New Mexico. President Barack Obama proclaimed the 250,000-acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument in March, and now the Columbine Hondo is getting its due. A bill to protect 45,000 acres of wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, in the Carson National Forest, was among the measures considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month. Nearby communities are especially sanguine about this progress because the bill would protect the headwaters of two rivers that supply their drinking water.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D), who chairs the energy committee, made a major announcement Nov. 26 in which he unveiled how he hopes to solve the nettlesome matter of a special category of federal lands in southern Oregon that has been a declining source of revenue to local communities. Budgets have tightened, and essential services aren't being provided. People in the state feel it's okay to help the counties out of their fiscal woes, but land protection must be part of the answer. The senator listened. In his plan, more than 1 million acres of forested lands would gain some form of protection through a variety of means, including long-sought wilderness designations for Devil's Staircase and the Rogue River. Wyden's draft bill, the Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013, isn't perfect, but with some refinement and clarification it could be the path forward that keeps water clean, protects wildlife and wilderness, helps rural communities, and creates timber jobs.

These kinds of proposals aren't put together in a vacuum, nor do they gain momentum of their own accord. It takes the commitment of people like you. Because folks in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and elsewhere have been doing their part—making this democracy work by the people, for the people—good things are happening. Every step through the process matters, whether it's a hearing or the markup of a bill in committee. Already, three wilderness bills have passed the Senate and await action by the House. If you haven't done so, write your representative to tell him or her to get in on the action. Tell them you'd like to see Congress pass wilderness measures, so the president can sign them. Remember the maxim: When people will lead, leaders will follow.

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Susan Whitmore

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