Ending the Wilderness Limbo

By Beacon Staff

Through the vast gassy clouds of sturm und drang from Washington, DC, comes a glimmer of good news: Twin bills in the Senate and House, both entitled the “Wilderness and Roadless Areas Release Act.”

This short-and-sweet legislation, (HR-1581 and S-1087) covers Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings that “have not been designated as wilderness” before enactment; and “have been identified” by the respective agencies as “not suitable for wilderness designation.”

Furthermore, two disputative administrative actions imposing wilderness management on these “not suitable for wilderness” lands would be voided: 1.) the Clinton-era, Forest Service “roadless rule,” and 2.) the Obama-era, Bureau of Land Management “Wildlands order 3310.”

In short, at least 43 million acres of public lands, found not suitable for wilderness by repeated, targeted agency reviews (lasting 47 years on Forest Service and 36 years on BLM), could be released from wilderness limbo back to multiple use by a vote of Congress.

Environmental groups are upset, of course, as they should be. But enough other people think it is about dang time to stop the wilderness kabuki show – and that might just happen, if not right away.

It is not coincidental that almost all the 31 House co-sponsors are rural, not-only-Western Republicans who represent districts with significant public lands, nor is it happenstance that all the Senate sponsors are Western Republicans.

Lead House sponsor Kevin McCarthy represents Bakersfield/Kern County, one of the few bastions of America remaining in the People’s Republic of California. More importantly, McCarthy is House Majority Whip, ranked #3 in the Republican leadership, being one of the “Young Guns” who are looking to replace the creaky country-club cadre of the Grand Old Party. He’s young, energetic, popular with his district, and powerful.

Did I mention he’s young, popular and powerful?

On the Senate side, lead sponsor John Barrasso’s (R-Wyoming) participation is of special interest for two reasons. First, while Barrasso came to office as a moderate, he is now ranked in the top six conservative Republicans. Second, in 2009 Barrasso and fellow Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi passed legislation withdrawing 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from energy leasing and giving 387 miles of Snake River streams Wild and Scenic protective status.

In short, Barrasso has supported protection of outstanding wild places, but now supports drawing a line. Why?

Simply put, the wilderness “process” has dragged on far too long. Reasonable people would presume the real purpose of the 1964 Wilderness Act (and 1976 Federal Lands Policy and Management Act) was to seek out wilderness, recommend those lands for preservation, at which point Congress would vote appropriately, and lands not suitable would be timely released back to the modern world.

That last part, of course, never happened. Greens first rejected the official reviews, fighting the release of any “potential” wilderness areas, regardless of actual suitability (and the loss of those acres as a bargaining chip). They demanded, and got, further reviews.

The most extreme case of how the “game” is played is Utah: With 24 million acres of BLM, 3.2 million acres were initially found to merit wilderness review in 1976, out of which BLM recommended 1.9 million acres as wilderness in 1991.

Greens bucked, and the Clinton administration did another “inventory” that found another 2.6 million acres. On top of that, a New York congressman has repeatedly sponsored “wish list” legislation to variously designate 5.7 to 9.7 million acres of wilderness in Utah, regardless of study or review. Current BLM director Robert Abbey has told Congress that 6.8 million acres of Utah BLM now have “wilderness characteristics” – over twice as much land as was thought worth a look 36 years ago. Meantime, a just-finished BLM planning process took another look at 2.8 million acres of previously inventoried ground. That review resulted in only 400,000 acres worthy of recommendation.

Nuts? You bet, and Utah is only one state.

HR 1581 has had committee hearings in the Republican-led House, but the Senate Democratic leadership is almost certain to spike its companion without hearings. Even if the Senate acted, President Obama would never sign.

What the heck, there’s an election coming up in 2012 – here’s one way the election will matter to you.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.