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Will Congress finally take a look at new wilderness?

Public lands advocates hopeful that bipartisan support will help move some measures through the House

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The peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness in Colorado’s Gore Range. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Public lands advocates are hopeful that Congress will advance at least some of the public lands wilderness bills that have been bottled up by a partisan divide the past couple of years.

The 112th Congress was the first in in almost 50 years that didn’t add to the National Wilderness Preservation System, but several pending bills that have already gained approval from a key U.S. Senate committee have bipartisan backing and solid local support.

This week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee cleared measures to safeguard public land in Colorado, Oregon and Nevada. These join five measures approved earlier. The eight bills together would safeguard nearly 300,000 acres, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts public lands program.

Altogether, 16 wilderness bills have been introduced, slightly more than had been introduced at the same point two years ago. The early action taken by Senate committees in this session increases the odds that some of these bills will find their way to the president’s desk for signature.

On the House side, both Natural Resources Committee Chairman Hastings and Subcommittee Chair Bishop have made public statements that indicate a greater willingness to move this type of legislation than last Congress.

“We’ve come to believe he (Hastings) will process some of the wilderness bills, based on what we’ve heard,” said Tim Mahoney, a public lands program director with the Pew group.

He singled out the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which is co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, as one of the bills that may see the president’s pen by the end of the session. Two other wilderness bills in Nevada also have bipartisan support, Mahoney said, adding that the GOP representatives from that state are serious about wanting the measures to move.

“We have a new chairman (of the Senate committee). He has met with Hastings .., they agreed they should work toward passing some of these bills,” Mahoney said.

On the House side, the Republican leadership in the current era has never been enthusiastic about creating new wilderness. The opposition is based in part on ideology and in part on the overall tactic of obstructionism that has blocked progress on many other fronts.

But some recent statements by House GOP leaders suggest that the committee and subcommittee charged with public lands oversight will look at some of the measures.

According to Pew, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) is on record as saying, “It’s our intention, in this subcommittee, to begin consideration of some of the wilderness proposals that have been languishing out there. The proposals will be given conscientious examination to see if there are areas which meet the standards that are set forth in the Wilderness Act, whether or not wilderness designation is the wisest course for managing these areas, and the extent to which the bills appropriately balance conservation and non-conservation goals.”

A week later, on the House floor, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) said, “… (I)in July the subcommittee plans to hold a legislative hearing on wilderness proposals. Congressman Dan Benishek’s Sleeping Bear Dunes legislation and Congressman David Reichert’s Alpine Lakes legislation will be considered at this hearing.

“These and other proposals will be judged on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Speaker, Congress has the sole authority to decide which of our lands should be included in the wilderness system,” Hasting said.

“Establishing wilderness is the most restrictive land-use designation that Congress can apply to our nation’s lands. It greatly limits the American public’s access. The committee will, therefore, carefully and thoughtfully examine wilderness proposals to determine if the designation is appropriate and listen to local citizens and community leaders whose livelihoods and recreational opportunities could be affected. The committee will also consider proposals to ensure multiple uses of our public lands so that they provide a full range of recreational, economic, conservation, and resource benefits.”

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