In Congress: Several Bills Advance, O&C Lands Bill Unveiled

The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Ron Wyden (D-OR), took the lead in maneuvering public lands measures through Congress last month, advancing several collaborative bills that boast significant conservation gains while also aiding local economies. On Nov. 20, members of the panel's Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining heard testimony on the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Act. The next day, the energy committee unanimously approved the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.

The Hermosa Creek bill, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), would protect the 108,000-acre Hermosa Creek Watershed within the San Juan National Forest in Colorado. Of those lands, 38,000 acres would be designated as wilderness, with the remainder becoming a special management area that includes roadless acreage. Unless the bill passes, certain recreation areas within the watershed would be closed, with the potential to hurt local economies. Testifying on behalf of the measure was Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO), who highlighted support for Hermosa Creek from conservation and outdoor recreation groups, as well as from local elected officials.

The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, introduced by New Mexico Senators Tom Udall (D) and Martin Heinrich (D), aims to safeguard 45,000 acres of the Carson National Forest north of Taos. Included within the proposal are the headwaters of the Red River and the Rio Hondo. The legislation is supported by those who like to camp, fish, hunt, ranch, and recreate in the diverse habitat of Columbine-Hondo, which is home to elk, mountain lions, black bears, pine martens, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

The subcommittee also heard testimony on the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Conservation Area Act, introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The measure would protect 350,000 acres, including the Snow Mountain, Cache Creek, and Cedar Roughs wilderness areas near Sacramento. The area has the support of stakeholders who want to protect its ecological and scenic values and to balance those with recreational opportunities. This bill next moves to the full natural resources committee for consideration.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (S. 364), introduced by Montana Senators Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D), was approved by the energy committee and awaits action by the full Senate. It would add 50,500 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,700 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness. In addition, 208,000 acres would be protected as conservation management areas, a designation that safeguards traditional uses such as grazing and hunting, while allowing for efforts to control noxious weeds.

On Nov. 14, The Pew Charitable Trusts' U.S. public lands team participated in a Capitol Hill briefing, organized by the conservation community, about the Antiquities Act. Lawmakers and their staffs were briefed on the history of the Act and threats to it, the importance of national monument designation to local economies, and the success of designations made by President Obama.

Wrapping up the month, the director of Pew's work to protect Oregon's O&C Lands stood with other conservationists and representatives of the timber industry on Nov. 26 in support of a new proposal by Sen. Wyden to end a decades-long standoff over management of the more than 2 million acres of O&C Lands in that state. While the plan is not perfect, it has real merit and will provide various protections to about a million acres, including designating nearly 90,000 acres of wilderness and about 200 miles of wild and scenic rivers.

Dick Hughes, editorial page editor of the Statesman Journal in Salem, OR, wrote a Dec. 1 column titled “Wyden has right idea on O&C lands”:

A Douglas fir planted in 1937 in Western Oregon could be more than 130 feet tall today. If it were on O&C lands, it might have survived fire, insects, disease and—in recent decades—persistent political and legal battles about its future.

Oregon, if it gets its act together, has an opportunity to end that fighting; substantially increase the number of timber-industry jobs; conserve more forestland for recreation; protect the last vestiges of old-growth trees; and potentially set a national example of sound, scientific forest management. All of that actually could happen.

Pew will be working with the senator and his staff in the coming months to strengthen the proposal as it moves through the legislative process.

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