The fight for wilderness
Wilderness is both a bureaucratic designation for public lands in the US and an ideal for future protections of our national heritage. The Wilderness Act of 1964 remains an incredible promise to the world to protect examples of wild lands in the United States in relatively untrammeled condition, essentially forever.
Wilderness is the strongest Federal protection available to public lands. Roads and other building projects are prohibited in wilderness areas, as are motorized vehicles. Logging is also prohibited – the only economic activities allowed are leases for livestock grazing and mining on previously patented mining claims, and low-impact tourism such as guiding and backpacking. Even these economic activities require close management by federal agents to protect the wilderness values. National Parks and Monuments, Fish and Wildlife Refuges, and lands administered by the US Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may all contain designated wilderness areas.
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However, with President Ronald Reagan’s assumption of power in 1980, the Republican Party became the party of anti-environmental zeal, holding environmental protections as impositions on industry and individuals alike. This attitude, shared by an increasingly larger bloc of Republicans, became the norm with the 1994 takeover of the House of Representatives by Newt Gingrich.
Passage of wilderness bills has never been easy, as pro-wilderness grassroots campaigns battle often-strident opposition from industries such as logging, mining, and oil, as well as local opposition from rural residents.
After Gingrich’s forced resignation, House majority leadership fell to Texas Representative Tom DeLay, nicknamed “the Hammer” for his enforcement of Republican votes on the House floor. He appointed a close ideological ally, Rep. Richard Pombo of California, to chair the House Resources Committee, the key committee dealing with parks, wilderness, mining, oil drilling, and other resource issues.
Pombo presents himself as a farmer and rancher, often wearing a cowboy hat in official photos, but his family’s main income has come from real estate transactions that convert the agricultural lands of California’s San Joaquin Valley to commuter homes for San Francisco Bay Area workers. Pombo was elevated to Resources chairman over other committee Republicans with more seniority.
Since only Congress can designate a natural area as wilderness, the prospects for new wilderness areas seemed dark indeed with the ascension of Representatives DeLay and Pombo into positions of ultimate congressional power.
The Clinton administration protected areas on USFS and BLM lands by avoiding Congress entirely to set up an administrative “Roadless Area” Conservation Rule. The Clinton Roadless Rule provided de facto protection against logging and road building on more than 60 million acres throughout the US, including in the nation’s largest National Forest, the Tongass of Alaska. These administrative “Roadless Areas” meet the criteria for being designated as a Wilderness Area but do not now have Wilderness protection.
But what one president has done, another can undo. From the beginning of his administration, the Bush White House, Department of Agriculture, and Forest Service sought to overturn the Roadless Rule (along with virtually every other environmental law on the books). The Department of Agriculture suspended the implementation of the Clinton Roadless Rule for several months. The Bush administration then virtually invited resource industry-dominated states to sue the federal government so the courts could overturn the Roadless Rule, asking federal courts in those cases to enjoin the rule. In 2003, following a court ruling in Wyoming suspending the Clinton Roadless Rule, the Bush administration began withdrawing protection for roadless areas, removing Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from consideration altogether, and setting up a complicated scheme whereby state governors would have to petition the Forest Service to protect roadless areas in their states.
But the courts did not buy this new scheme. In 2004, Earth Island’s John Muir Project successfully sued the Forest Service to stop logging in Duncan Canyon, part of the Lake Tahoe basin in the Sierra Nevada, because it was a protected area under the Roadless Rule. In September 2006, US federal court Judge Elizabeth Laporte reinstated the entire Clinton Roadless Rule, a major victory for environmentalists including EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund and the Wilderness Society. Judge Laporte cited the failure of the Bush administration to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Both the Bush administration and environmentalists continue to hedge their bets on whether or not the Clinton Roadless Rule will stay in place. Sadly, the court did not restore protection of 9.2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Very few wilderness bills have made it through the Republican-controlled Congress. Some bills, such as Senator Barbara Boxer’s California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which would designate 2.5 million acres of California’s public lands as wilderness, have never even had a hearing in the House Resources Committee, the usual first place for wilderness legislation to be heard.
Several smaller wilderness bills, generally designating small amounts of acreage, passed this session of Congress, such as the Ojita Wilderness Bill in New Mexico, wilderness in Puerto Rico’s rainforest, and Rep. Sam Farr’s (D-CA) 57,000 acres of wilderness additions to the California Big Sur area.
But bills for wilderness designations in Colorado, New England, Washington State, and other areas have languished. Many members of Congress introduced legislation to codify the Clinton Roadless Area Rule, but were again thwarted by the Republican leadership.
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The exception occurred in the waning days of the 2005-06 Congressional session. Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Senator Boxer authored a major wilderness bill, the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act. The bill adds 273,000 acres of public lands to the wilderness system. Another 21 miles of the Black Butte River in California’s north coast were added to the federal Wild & Scenic River system.
The centerpiece of the bill is California’s Lost Coast and the surrounding King Range, the longest stretch of roadless land on the US coast outside of Alaska. Miles of sandy beaches invite backpackers to experience this unique protected area.
Thompson worked closely with local governments to get support for his ambitious legislation. Some governments were not friendly – for example, areas in Del Norte County were reportedly dropped from protection when the conservative local Board of Supervisors objected. A new 51,000-acre Recreation Management Area was set up to garner support from off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
But for the most part, Thompson’s wilderness bill represents a triumph in local negotiating combined with the strong support of environmentalists and other groups. California senators Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D) also deserve credit for raising unanimous support for the bill in the Senate, increasing the pressure on the House Resources Committee to take action.
After months of delay, Chairman Richard Pombo agreed to hear the bill and move it along to the full House floor for a vote. Many observers believe the strong election challenges to Pombo in his district, from former Congressman Pete McCloskey in the primary and from Democrat Jerry McNerney in the general election, helped convince Pombo that blocking the wilderness bill in his committee was not a good idea.
Environmentalists invested heavily against Pombo, ousting him from the House of Representatives. With Democrats the new House majority, a new Democratic Chairman will be placed in charge of the Resources Committee.
Polls have shown that the general public overwhelmingly supports wilderness protection of treasured wild lands for future generations. The Republican leadership in Congress had 12 years to seek additional acreage for protection, but often refused even to consider such legislation, much less pass it.
Less than 10 percent of our nation’s extensive public lands still remains as essentially “roadless.” These lands need our help, to prevent industrial interests and their cronies in Congress from continuing to destroy our American heritage of wilderness.