Thursday, January 15, 2009
(01-15) 18:25 PST Washington - --
The Senate approved a major expansion of wilderness areas nationwide Thursday, protecting more than 2 million acres of public land from drilling, logging and mining, including 735,000 acres across California.
The 73-to-21 vote was a huge victory for conservationists, who convinced Senate leaders to roll 160 wilderness bills into one giant package. The bill would permanently protect lands in nine states, from the Eastern Sierra Nevada in California to Oregon's Mount Hood and from Utah's Zion National Park to the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.
The package now heads to the House for final passage, but its sponsors said the Senate's lopsided passage will help smooth the way. It could be the first environmental bill that President-elect Barack Obama signs.
For California, the measure would expand wilderness areas from Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks to Joshua Tree National Park and also would authorize $88 million to help restore the historic salmon run on the San Joaquin River. The bill would help implement a settlement to end the 18-year dispute between environmentalists, federal regulators and Central Valley farmers over how to maintain water levels to preserve a key spawning ground for Chinook salmon.
The newly designated wilderness areas are all on existing public lands - managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and other agencies - but now will have the highest level of protection under law. Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, drilling, mining and logging are banned, as are motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles and four-wheelers. Hiking, camping and horseback riding are allowed, but the areas must be managed to preserve wildlife as well as the "untrammeled" nature of the ecosystems.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who helped sponsor the bills to protect the new wilderness areas in California, said as the state's population climbs toward 50 million people as early as 2020, it is crucial to set aside areas for the public to enjoy where wildlife can still thrive.
"We can't lose our wilderness areas," Boxer said. "Once they're gone, they're gone."
The bill includes some areas in California that conservationists and recreational users view as true gems, including:
-- 77,000-acre additions to the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness areas near Yosemite National Park that feature alpine lakes, glacial valleys, pine forests and 12 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The area covers the headwaters of the West Walker River, a key habitat for big-horn sheep that's also popular with anglers.
-- A 223,000-acre stretch of the White Mountains in Mono County, which is the country's largest and highest desert mountain range, with jagged peaks that top 14,000-feet and the largest stretch of alpine tundra in western North America.
-- 85,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, famous for its Giant Sequoia groves, centered on the new 37,000-acre John Krebs Wilderness, named after the former San Joaquin Valley congressman who pushed through a law in 1978 to save the area from development.
-- 191,000 acres of wilderness around Joshua Tree National Park, Cahuilla Mountain, the San Bernardino National Forest and the Pinto Mountains in Riverside County - areas home to endangered species such as the mountain yellow-legged frog, southwestern willow flycatcher, desert tortoise, Quino checkerspot butterfly and Peninsular bighorn sheep.
The California wilderness bills were the product of years of careful negotiations between federal agencies, environmental groups, local landowners, and state and county officials.
For example, a deal was reached on one of the bills, the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act, sponsored by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), which covers 470,000 acres, after conservation groups agreed to back a new 11,000-acre winter snowmobile recreation area at Leavitt Bowl, near the Sonora Pass, which was sought by snowmobilers and local business groups.
The bill to expand protected areas of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks won approval only after its sponsors - Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia - agreed to new language that assured that horses and commercial pack-and-saddle trips would be allowed in the new wilderness areas.
The overall bill was opposed by property rights groups and some conservative lawmakers, who said it was a land grab that could put energy-rich lands off-limits to development. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a fierce critic of the bill, forced Senate leaders to jump through a series of procedural hoops - including a rare Sunday vote - to get the bill passed this week.
"We are going to significantly alter our access to millions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas," Coburn said. "We are going to trample on property owners' rights like we haven't in decades. ... I ask myself, Why are we doing it?"
But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was lead sponsor of the package, noted that many of the wilderness bills were pushed by GOP lawmakers with support from local officials.
"I can't think of a single bill that has ever done more to ensure the enjoyment of, and access to, wilderness areas, historical sites, national parks, forests, trails and scenic rivers," Bingaman said.
What is Wilderness?
Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the poetic and legal definition of wilderness is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
In practical terms, it means no commercial activity: No drilling, no logging, no mining, no ranching. Motorized and mechanized vehicles are banned, which rules out snowmobiles, four-wheelers and even mountain bikes.
Hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, hunting, swimming, and horseback riding are all allowed in wilderness areas.
Wilderness designation also requires federal agencies to manage for the "wilderness character of the area," which means cleaning up watersheds and protecting species.
A wilderness designation can only be overturned by an act of Congress.