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March 28, 2013

Who Needs Congress?

Is Congress "sclerotic"? That's the word Al Gore described them last week while speaking at the announcement that Los Angeles will be coal-free by 2025. "You know," he said, "we can't pass this and we can't pass that." The vice-president was talking about climate legislation, but Congress has been, shall we say, clogged up in many ways. It's now been four years since it passed a single bill to protect wilderness -- even though many such bills have been introduced during that time by members of both parties.

Fortunately, we don't have to rely on Congress for good news -- whether it's about cleaning up our air or protecting our public lands. So here's some of both kinds.

Start with the welcome announcement that President Obama has designated five new national monuments. They're all worthwhile, but two of them are also significant and long overdue additions to our wilderness heritage. The new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument includes 240,000 acres of northern New Mexico wilderness and represents hundreds of years of Native American and Hispanic culture. It also provides critical habitat for wildlife such as elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and many migratory birds. And the creation of San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington State protects 955 acres of what Obama's proclamation accurately describes as "a dramatic and unusual diversity of habitats with forests, woodlands, bluffs, inter-tidal areas, and sandy beaches." Not to mention orcas.

Both Rio Grande del Norte and the San Juans had strong local support for protection, both will provide major boosts to local economies, and both had previously been proposed as national conservation areas in Congress. The bills went nowhere. What was that word again? Sclerotic.

Here's some more good news that happened in spite of the current Congress, which has been more interested in weakening the Clean Air Act than enforcing it. During the past two decades, the air in our national parks has dramatically improved. But thanks to the Clean Air Act -- and our nation's move away from coal-fired power plants -- mountains are reappearing from the haze and smog. That's good news both for the millions of people who enjoy these parks and for the plants and wildlife that live in them. You can see a slideshow of "before and after" images from researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University.

In honor of Los Angeles, which has cleaned up its air dramatically during the past decade, and which is setting an example for cities across the world with its commitment to renewable energy, here's an example from that city's backyard -- The San Gorgonio Wilderness:

Sangorgonio

Wow. If we can clean up the air in our parks this dramatically in 20 years, maybe there's hope for getting Congress moving again, too. Send your representative a message supporting action on the dozens of wilderness protection bills that are still stuck in the system. 

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