An Early Holiday Gift: Substantial Gains in Protections for Public Lands

An Early Holiday Gift: Substantial Gains in Protections for Public Lands

Defying the moniker “lame duck Congress,” lawmakers passed significant lands protections in December that were wrapped into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.

These conservation gains include protection of nearly 245,000 acres of land as wilderness in five states—Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington; more than 400,000 acres of other designations to safeguard lands in Colorado, Alaska, and Montana from resource extraction; withdrawal of over 400,000 acres from mining and energy development; and wild and scenic river protection granted to dozens of miles of waterways. In addition, the legislation calls for the creation or expansion of numerous national preserves, military parks, historical parks, and monuments, including the establishment of the 22,650-acre Tule Springs National Monument in Las Vegas.

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee began negotiating with House and Senate leaders and representatives of both chambers’ Armed Services committees shortly after returning from the Election Day recess in November.   Attaching the negotiated language to the Armed Services bill required compromise, but the conservation bills they included reflect the intent of the broad coalitions that originally crafted them and represent locally driven, bipartisan support.

On Dec. 4, the measure was approved by the House of Representatives by a margin of 300 to 119.  The Senate passed the measure 89 to 11 eight days later. 

Columbine-Hondo© Jim O'Donnell

Columbine-Hondo Wilderness

The slopes of Gold Hill would be included in the protected wilderness. 

Although The Pew Charitable Trusts did not favor some provisions of the bill, we supported passage of the land protection pieces of the bill and worked toward that end.  Pew was also pleased to see language improvements to the Pine Forest (Nevada) Wilderness designation included in the bill.  A number of conservation measures that Pew has long championed were included in the legislation.  They are:

  • Columbine-Hondo Wilderness protecting 45,000 acres of wilderness north of Taos, New Mexico, in the Carson National Forest.
  • Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and wilderness additions safeguarding 275,000 acres of rugged public land in western Montana. The bill will add 50,500 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,700 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness, and it will also designate another 208,000 acres as conservation management areas while prioritizing noxious-weed eradication and prevention on these public lands.
  • Alpine Lakes Wilderness additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie rivers protection expanding Washington state’s existing 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness by 22,100 acres and designating parts of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt rivers as wild and scenic. 
  • Hermosa Creek watershed protection conserving the 108,000-acre Hermosa Creek Watershed in the San Juan National Forest of southwestern Colorado.
  • Wovoka Wilderness—named for a Northern Paiute leader—preserving 48,000 acres of historic, cultural, and natural resources in Lyon County, Nevada. It will convey 12,500 acres of land to the city of Yerington for economic development surrounding a copper mine.
  • Pine Forest Range Wilderness safeguarding 26,000 acres in northwestern Nevada. 

In this holiday season, remember that frost is gathering in new wilderness areas, snow is collecting on newly protected branches and boughs, and the winter sun is shining on landscapes that you helped preserve for future generations.


Countdown: Places Congress Can Yet Protect in 2014

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Fifty years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, this landmark law remains the nation's most effective tool for protecting wild places. Congress has a chance to protect a few additional areas across the nation before it adjourns for the year. A number of wilderness measures have been reported out of committees and await action on the floor.