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Looking Ahead to Wilderness

Last month, as the first session of the 111th Congress drew to a close, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (SENR) held a legislative mark-up on several pieces of wilderness and public lands legislation.  The legislation builds upon the impressive record of the 111th Congress, which early in 2009 passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act and in doing so protected some 2 million acres of wilderness.  Now, the ENR Committee has marked up 32 individual bills, clearing their way for action on the Senate floor early this year.  This includes several important bills that will protect new wilderness areas in Washington and New Mexico as well as wild and scenic rivers in Oregon and Washington.  Unfortunately, it also contains a land swap that would authorize a massive copper mine located under several Native American sacred sites in Arizona.

North cascades 

Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

Among the key good bills included in the package is Chairman Bingaman's bill (S. 874) to establish the Rio Grande Del Norte National Conservation Area in Northern New Mexico.  The legislation would designate over 214,000 acress as a national conservation area and would also designate 21,000 acres as wilderness.  The committee also approved the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (S. 721), legislation introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell).  This bill would add over 22,000 acres of low elevation forests to the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington, one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country, as well as designate nearly 30 miles of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and the entire Pratt River as wild and scenic rivers.  Finally, two separate proposals (H.R. 1593 and S. 1369) approved by the Committee would protect 14.3 miles of Illabot Creek in Washington and 21 miles of the Molalla River in Oregon as wild and scenic.

Unfortunately, the ENR Committee also reported out the Resolution Copper land exchange bill (S. 409) sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kyl (R-AZ).  The land exchange is adamantly opposed by Native American tribes in Arizona and across the country because some of the lands being exchanged are considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache tribe.  The lands are adjacent to Apache Leap and include the historic Oak Flats campground, used annually by the Apache tribe.  Senators McCain and Kyl argue that the proposed Resolution Copper mine will bring jobs and tax revenue to Arizona.  The Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter has worked closely with our tribal allies to oppose the land exchange.  However, Senators McCain and Bingaman struck a deal shortly before the ENR mark-up, which mandated full NEPA review of the land exchange and the requirement that the Secretary of Agriculture must determine if the land exchange is in the 'public interest.'

Looking ahead, we expect that these bills, along with numerous others, will likely be packaged into some kind of omnibus bill.  We look forward to working to push these important wilderness and wild and scenic river bills across the finish line and to the President's desk by the end of 2010.


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