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Wilderness: Finding Common Ground in Congress

Sleeping Bear Dunes USFS Kerry Kelly
A view of Lake Michigan along Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a candidate for wilderness designation (Image: USFS/Kerry Kelly)

An increasingly rare sight graced the halls of the House of Representatives this past Tuesday when a Natural Resources subcommittee convened for a hearing on bipartisan wilderness bills. Two and a half years have passed since Congress last designated wilderness, during which time the historic Wilderness Act has joined the ranks of other bedrock environmental and conservation laws under fire by the GOP-dominated House. Tuesday’s hearing featured familiar anti-public lands rhetoric, but for the first time in recent memory, it was tempered by representatives of both parties testifying in favor of wilderness legislation.

Here are four of the bills we hope to see Congress pass:

  • H.R. 41, Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Wilderness Act—Rep. Issa's (R-CA-49) bill would designate over 21,000 acres of wilderness in San Diego County. The area is home to deep canyons, stunning rock formations, and chaparral and oak woodlands. It is a crucial corridor between the Anza-Borrego Desert and the coastal mountains.
  • H.R. 608, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act—With its proximity to the Seattle metropolitan region, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country. Rep. Reichert’s (R-WA-08) legislation would add over 22,000 acres to the existing area and protect areas beloved by many and vital habitat for trout. Additionally, the legislation would designate portions of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic.
  • H.R. 977, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act—The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, is a popular spot for hunters, anglers, and boaters. This legislation introduced by Rep. Huizenga (R-IL-02) would protect over 32,000 acres, or nearly half of the entire unit.
  • H.R. 1413, Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Act of 2011—At nearly 30,000 acres, Rep. DeFazio’s (D-OR-04) bill would protect some of the few remaining intact stands of old growth forest in Oregon’s Coast Range. The region is home to black bears, elk, mountain lions, and the highly threatened spotted owl.

All told, the bills in question would protect close to 125,000 acres of public land as wilderness. Despite the variety of outdoor recreation Americans can enjoy in wilderness areas—everything from hunting and fishing to mountaineering is allowed—the recent Republican refrain has harped that the Wilderness Act “locks land up.” So why the introduction of several Republican-authored wilderness bills? Each has been carefully crafted with extensive local stakeholder input, resulting in a case-specific solution for each district. While the message has been lately lost in Congress, the vast majority of Americans want to protect our country’s natural heritage and the benefits associated with it. Rep. Markey of Massachussetts echoed these sentiments in Tuesday’s hearing.

“Congress does not create wilderness,” Markey said in his opening remarks. “Wilderness was created long before we arrived, by a much higher power. The best we can do, and what the Wilderness Act seeks to do, is identify those areas we have not yet altered beyond recognition and preserve them.”

The Sierra Club looks forward to working with the elected officials and communities of these districts to pass wilderness legislation.


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