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A Way to Come Together on Public Lands Conservation

If Congress doesn’t like President Obama’s national monument designation, it should pass the dozens of pending wilderness bills

Late last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would restrict the president’s ability to fulfill a key part of his stated agenda. No, this wasn’t the umpteenth vote to repeal Obamacare. Rather, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act” would severely constrain the president’s power to conserve wildlands via the Antiquities Act. As the bill’s sponsor, Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop, explains it: “The president ought to formally be required to consider the input of local communities and states prior to declaring new national monuments.”

Sleeping Bear Dunesphoto by Josh Kellogg, on FlickrSleeping Bear Dunes, on the shore of Lake Michigan

At first glance, the bill may appear like yet another predictable partisan fight over environmental protection, with Democrats demanding more conservation as Republicans fight for more resource extraction on public lands. But the story is more complicated – and more interesting – than that.

For generations there has existed a bi-partisan enthusiasm for protecting America’s unique wild places. Republicans, following in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, often celebrated the wilderness as a crucible of the nation’s pioneering character. Democrats, continuing on the path blazed by Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, praised the wild as a sacred place, a spiritual resource for personal renewal. In 1984, for example, Congress passed 20 wilderness bills protecting some 8 million acres; nearly every one had bi-partisan co-sponsors.

This history of collaboration might seem to be in shreds. The previous Congress, the 112th, was the first since 1964 not to designate any new wilderness areas. But when, last month, Congress finally got around to passing its first wilderness bill in five years – a measure to protect 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan – the accomplishment received praise from both sides of the aisle. Republican Congressman Dan Benishek of Michigan called the bill, which the House approved unanimously, a “huge win … for the citizens of Northern Michigan.” And remember that during last year’s government shutdown, Congressman Bishop’s home state of Utah rushed to pick up the tab to keep its national parks open.

As Congressmen Benishek and Bishop know, many of their constituents see real value in wilderness conservation – both the ineffable worth of wild places and wildlife, as well as the quantifiable benefits of recreation dollars. In the fall, the general stores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are packed with hunters heading into the backcountry, and the millions of annual visitors to Zion, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks help keep alive the cafes and curio shops of Utah’s red rock country.

So this conservation dustup isn’t so much a conflict over goals as it is a fight over process. Among many rank-and-file Republican legislators there still exists a strong commitment to protecting wildlands – as long as they’re involved in the decision-making.

Well, if House Republicans don’t like the president acting unilaterally to protect public lands via the Antiquities Act, they don’t need to put arbitrary and cumbersome restrictions on the century-old law. They have a much easier recourse: They could pass the more than 33 conservation bills now pending in Congress, many of which have GOP authors or co-sponsors.

Alpine Lakes Wildernessphoto by Linda Strande, on FlickrAlpine Lakes Wilderness

For example, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander is the author of the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would permanently protect 20,000 acres in the Cherokee National Forest. Republican Congressman Dan Reichert of Washington has teamed up with Democratic Senator Patty Murray to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness by 21,000 acres. In Nevada, Senators Harry Reid and Dean Heller are pushing to create the Burbank Canyons Wilderness Area. And in Colorado, Democratic Senator Michael Bennett and Republican Representative Scott Tipton are working together to provide new protections to the Hermosa Creek Watershed, a 108,000-acre area north of Durango.

“I think if you look at the bills that have been authored, you still have an incredible array for legislation, with Republicans and Democrats working together on bills,” Alan Rowsome, a senior staffer in the Washington, DC office of The Wilderness Society, told me. “The problem is that the chairs of the relevant committees have not been moving legislation, despite the popularity of those proposals, and despite the work of bi-partisan members of Congress who see these as incredible opportunities to protect the natural resources of their district.”

Most of these proposed bills are the result of exhaustive public processes, a fact that should ease Republicans’ worries about conservation action that doesn’t involve enough input from locals. A great example of local buy-in is the decade-long effort to get wilderness designation for 330,000 acres in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The campaign has strong support from Idaho sportsmen, and the bill to protect the area was written by Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, a legislator with an 85 percent career voting record from the American Conservative Union.

This coming September will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. What better way to celebrate the occasion than by combining these measures and others into a bi-partisan, omnibus public lands bill to permanently protect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres? In an era of seemingly ever-greater polarization, such a move would be a welcome way to affirm some of the shared values held by people of diverse political beliefs. It would fulfill the hopes that millions of Americans – hunters as well as backpackers, anglers as well as birdwatchers – have for safeguarding our remaining wild places.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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