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Congressional Inaction Leads to Four Years Without Wilderness Protection

Four years ago this week -- on March 30, 2009 -- the 111th Congress passed a historic piece of legislation that protected over 2 million acres of wilderness across nine states. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was the largest wilderness bill in decades, and represented the culmination of years of work by countless activists to protect our country’s last wild places. Last year, Congress again reached a historic milestone, albeit an unfortunate one. The 112th Congress became the first since 1966 not to protect a single new acre of wilderness. Dozens of bipartisan, common-sense proposals were stalled in yet one more example of Republican obstructionism.

The real losers of all this bickering are the treasured places that remain unprotected -- landscapes like 20,000 acres in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest. The Tennessee Wilderness Act would protect these lands from logging and off-road vehicles, and would also create the first new wilderness in Tennessee in over a generation. The local community very much wants to see the area protected because it will draw tourists to the region and be a boon to the local economy. Both of the state’s Senators, both Republican, are strong champions of the bill and actively want to see it move forward. But despite this support, congressional inaction and opposition from Republican leadership to any new wilderness has caused the bill to languish.

Tennessee CherokeeCherokee National Forest, Tennessee (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s not just Tennessee that Congress is short-changing -- it’s places all across our country. It’s the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, the Alpine Lakes in Washington, and the remote back-country that lies deep in the last remnants of old-growth in Oregon’s Coast Range. It’s places in California, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico. There are dozens of bills that have been stalled that would safeguard areas in dire need of protection -- areas that millions of Americans use to hunt, fish, hike, camp, and find solitude. And it is these areas that help fuel the outdoor recreation economy that generates $646 billion and supports more than 6 million jobs.

Sleeping Bear DunesSleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan (Photo: nps.gov)

Since Congress has been failing in its duty to protect our public lands, President Obama stepped in this week and used his own authority to designate five new national monuments across the country. We applaud him for this and hope to see many more large landscapes protected as monuments in the months and years ahead. But it’s not up to the president alone. This should be a wake-up call to Congress that the American people can’t wait any longer, and neither can our threatened wild lands.

Please thank President Obama for stepping up and designating five new national monuments, and then send a message to your representative, telling him or her to move quickly to protect wilderness areas before it’s too late.

--Matthew Kirby, Sierra Club Lands Team

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