03/31/2009 - President Barack Obama recently signed into law Monday one of the most significant conservation milestones in a decade. Chock-full of new protections for pristine and historic places, the measure sets the gold standard for land preservation by designating more than 2 million acres in nine states as wilderness.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act also offers a new roadmap for conserving our natural resources, placing a premium on bipartisan collaboration and local engagement. Perhaps most important, though, this early action by the new Congress signals a welcome change in the way our federal lands will be managed - through some unlikely partnerships - that will benefit Americans for generations.
Consider Idaho's Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands. A region twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, this area is one of the few remaining examples of the arid sagebrush lands often associated with the American West. For decades, environmental groups made repeated attempts to save the area, only to be rebuffed by some who viewed it as a needless Washington intrusion into their backyards. But the situation took a U-turn when county officials, tribal leaders and groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and Cattlemen's Association became alarmed by the rapid increase in off-road vehicles destroying this fragile ecosystem.
The result was a proposal, spearheaded by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, that develops new rules for off-road vehicle use and designates more than 500,000 acres of the area as wilderness, the state's first such designation in 29 years.
The story is similar in California. Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon serves an area that encompasses vast swaths of wild and rugged terrain stretching from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After touring the landscape, Rep. McKeon marveled at its natural beauty and the strong desire of local residents - from snowmobilers to small business owners - to preserve their quality of life.
While McKeon may share little in common politically with California's Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, he found in her an ally on the issue of new wilderness protections. Together they developed a broadly supported proposal to protect permanently 450,000 acres of alpine meadows, snowcapped mountains and a pine forest that is home to the some of the world's oldest trees.
With more than a dozen new proposals for 3 million acres of additional wilderness across the West poised to advance in this Congress, this new bipartisan, collaborative and locally driven route to public land protection could be a road well-traveled. Restoring the balance lost in past years, when drilling and development often trumped conservation, must be a top priority for the Obama administration's natural resources team.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees roughly one-fifth of the land in the United States, took an important first step by scrapping the sale of 77 parcels designated for oil and gas drilling in Utah near Dinosaur National Monument and Arches National Park.
With uranium mining at the doorstep of the Grand Canyon, however, he also should move quickly to put lands around its fabled rim off limits and encourage Congress to modernize the nation's grossly outdated 1872 mining law, which allowed the intrusion in the first place.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the custodian of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, can signal change by calling an immediate time-out on road building in the country's remaining undeveloped forestlands until the Roadless Area Conservation Rule can be fully reinstated. Endorsed by President Obama during the campaign, the rule was issued by the Clinton administration to protect over 58 million acres of undeveloped forestland. And this federal measure enjoys robust support not only from environmental organizations inside the Beltway, but also a host of leaders beyond it - including governors, county officials and well-known business executives and sportsmen.
Washington has too often paid only lip service to bipartisanship and consensus-based policymaking. But the success of the recent landmark lands package presents a good guide for how our government can operate.
With millions of acres of some of the nation's best backcountry still unprotected and at risk, let's hope everyone with a stake in conservation will continue down this new collaborative political path and not veer off course.
Jane Danowitz directs the Pew Environment Group's Public Lands Program.