The 111th Congress is poised to usher in the largest expansion of the nation's wilderness in a generation, with 2.1 million acres of public land in line for the strictest environmental protections allowed under federal law.
An omnibus lands bill that could receive final congressional approval this month would create new wilderness areas in nine states -- from the San Gabriel Mountains of California to Michigan's Lake Superior shoreline to a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia -- covering almost as much land as the 2.4 million acres designated during the entire eight years of the Bush presidency.
Meanwhile, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) last month introduced the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate 24 million acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land in five states as wilderness area.
The wilderness proposals carry significant implications, particularly for BLM and the Forest Service, which must manage public lands for multiple uses, including oil and gas drilling, minerals mining, timber harvesting and a variety of recreational uses.
By contrast, wilderness areas are by their very definition sanctuaries of quiet solitude, or as the 1964 law states, areas "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, that means wilderness is off limits to all human activities except hiking, canoeing and some hunting and fishing.
The surge in congressional interest in wilderness designations, particularly by Democrats but also some Republicans, is a tonic to many conservation groups who are still angered by Bush administration policies that they say favored natural resource extraction priorities like mining and drilling over land preservation.
"If you've ever gone out and taken a look at areas intensively drilled for oil and gas, you're talking about lands that look like a moonscape. They're ecologically devastated," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society. "These designations are significant because people don't realize that public lands are open to a wide variety of uses that can be just as damaging as putting up a bunch of condos."
There are, however, potential drawbacks to expanding wilderness designations, especially when it comes to energy production.
Roughly a third of the country's domestic energy is produced on lands managed by the Interior Department, officials say, and those numbers are expected to grow as more wind and solar energy projects are approved on public lands.
But wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal plants are forbidden in wilderness areas, said Mike Olsen, a former Interior senior administrator now with the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
That is a huge concern, Olsen said, because the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes billions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to encourage the development of renewable energy.
"You are in effect closing these lands off to domestic energy development," Olsen said. "In this world, where domestic energy production is so important, what does this mean to have additional public land taken off the table for energy development? I'm not placing value on one over the other. But we need to consider these impacts."
Spitler acknowledged the wilderness designations could affect some alternative energy development. He also is sensitive to the concerns of those who worry the wilderness designations could lessen their enjoyment of public land. Motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles are forbidden in wilderness areas.
But he and other conservationists say the increased protections are necessary.
"Between energy production and off-road vehicles we're losing land at a rapid pace," Spitler said. "We need these areas to receive permanent protection before they're lost."
A new vision
At issue is the National Wilderness Preservation System and attempts to add to the 107 million acres of public land already designated as wilderness.
The centerpiece of the latest effort to expand wilderness designations is the "Omnibus Public Land Management Act," which the Senate approved in January. The bill consolidates dozens of individual wilderness bills, from designating 37,000 acres within the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia to 700,000 acres and 105 miles of rivers and streams in California.
If Congress approves the measure, it will be the single largest wilderness designation since the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which extended the highest federal protection to 3.5 million acres of BLM lands in the Mojave Desert.
The new push for wilderness represents a stark change from the Bush administration and 12 years of the Republican-controlled Congresses, which tended to view public lands as resources that should be tapped for their abundant fossil fuels, timber and minerals, said Myke Bybee, a public lands representative for the Sierra Club.
"The wilderness designations in the omnibus bill will add a level of protection that's far more extensive than what they are now, and I think it's necessary," said Bill Wade, executive council chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which was critical of the Bush administration's conservation policies.
Some of the wilderness designations in the bill, such as expanding the 14,000-acre Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama, would have tremendous environmental value. Little River, atop Lookout Mountain, is one of the nation's longest mountaintop rivers and proponents want to ensure it stays pristine.
Other designations, like the expansion of the Fort Davis National Historic Site in west Texas, are vulnerable but have cultural significance as well. The fort, built in 1854, housed the Army's all-black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Most of the proposed wilderness areas in the bill are the result of lengthy negotiations between interest groups, and in some cases the new designations involve trade-offs between preservation and development interests.
For example, Zion National Park in southwest Utah is in the fastest-growing county in the state, and large developments have been proposed to the east and north of the park that could hamper the quality of the natural resource, said David Nimkin, director of the southwest region for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The omnibus lands bill would designate 123,743 acres -- more than 90 percent of the park -- as wilderness. In exchange, lawmakers agreed to sell 9,300 acres of public land to developers and use the money to purchase private parcels within the park boundaries, Nimkin said.
"Getting this thing done is a big deal," he said. "It codifies the protections for the national park into law. There are different administrations, different land managers, and various degrees of local pressure. This takes the administrative decisionmaking and discretion out of the hands of the public land manager."
Planning for global warming
One reason environmentalists are pushing to expand wilderness areas is to protect plants and animals from the damaging effects of climate change.
Scientists have calculated that for every increase in temperature of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the vegetation belt shifts 60 miles north or 550 feet higher in elevation. As vegetation shifts, so too will thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Those species whose habitat is not obstructed by highways, subdivisions and other development should be able to migrate to more hospitable climates; those that cannot will die.
The Interior Department and Forest Service have worked the past several years with a conservation effort know as the Wildlands Network to develop and maintain carefully plotted corridors connecting already preserved lands to one another. The network's goal is to create a 5,000-mile-long wildlife corridor stretching from Mexico to Alaska -- an effort that would take decades.
To succeed, the program must connect protected parcels that would allow for northward migration of at-risk species, said John Kostyack, executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming for the National Wildlife Federation.
"Global warming is leading to a complete transformation of how we look at conservation," Kostyack said.
Congress acknowledged that fact last year in the failed Climate Security Act of 2008 sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and John Warner (R-Va.). The bill, which would have been the first to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, included a provision to allocate as much as $7.2 billion a year to BLM, the Park Service, Forest Service and other agencies to purchase conservation easements and restore degraded habitats.
President Obama pledged support for the creation of such a fund during the 2008 campaign. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has listed the creation of such a fund as a priority in any future greenhouse gas legislation.
"All the science tells us that we'll need to have connected landscapes for animals and plants to move as the climate warms, and we've already seen in some cases massive shifts of vegetative communities northward," Kostyack said. "It's certainly a key rationale for expanded wildlife designations."
Another reason cited by environmental groups for expanding U.S. wilderness areas is to protect wildlife and habitat from damage caused by off-highway vehicles like dirt bikes, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, which have surged in popularity in recent years.
Snowmobiles in Yosemite National Park, for example, have sparked controversy and court battles, with park managers ultimately setting a daily cap on the number of snowmobiles allowed in the park because their engines scare away wildlife. And in Southern California's Mojave Desert, use of off-highway vehicles on BLM land have crushed hundreds of endangered desert tortoises.
"On the fragile ecosystem in the deserts in the West, where we don't get a lot of rain, the vegetation is already making a living in a very harsh environment," said Ileene Anderson, staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles. "So having somebody come riding their motorcycle or [all-terrain vehicle] through a pristine desert and running over everything, it has a cascading effect on the plants, insects and animals. These fragile lands can't take this continuous assault."
While acknowledging "there are a few knuckleheads" who cause damage to natural resources, Bill Dart, director of land use for the Bakersfield, Calif.-based Off-Road Business Association, a national trade group, said such incidents do not justify a federal prohibition on OHV use by law-abiding citizens on public lands.
"The impacts of off-road vehicles on wildlife have been overblown," Dart said.
Still, Dart said he is encouraged by the fact that federal officials and some advocacy groups have been willing to work with his group when developing wilderness area proposals.
For example, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) consulted the Off-Road Business Association when developing a proposed 27,000-acre wilderness designation in the San Gabriel Mountains in Northern California. The proposed Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness Area is one of the projects in the omnibus lands bill.
"They were willing to take out all the [off-road trails] that were of interest to us," Dart said. "Wildlife designations are appropriate as long as they don't get carried away. There is a way to do this that's a win-win situation for everyone."
A sign of things to come
While larger than anything proposed under the last several Congresses, the 2009 wilderness proposals are just a glimpse of things to come, congressional watchdogs and conservation leaders say.
Once the omnibus lands bill is approved, the floodgates will open and lawmakers will introduce dozens of wilderness proposals covering potentially millions of acres, experts say.
"There's a whole suite of bills ready to go," said Spitler of the Wilderness Society.
Many of the proposals will come as reintroduced bills from the past six years "that just never got their day in their sun," said Bybee, the Sierra Club official.
Many of the proposals will be modest and noncontroversial, such as a bill by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) to add about 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in Washington.
Others are huge proposals covering vast expanses of public land. They include:
* California Wild Heritage: Sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bill seeks to designate 2.5 million acres of wilderness, and an additional 400 miles of national wild and scenic rivers across the state. Originally introduced in 2002, Boxer is expected to revive the bill this spring.
* America's Red Rock Wilderness: By far the largest proposal, this bill would designate 9 million acres across Utah as wilderness. The proposal has been introduced in every Congress since 1989 but has never won support from a majority of of Utah's congressional delegation. Nevertheless, plans are under way to reintroduce the bill this session.
* Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness: Proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson, (R-Idaho), the bill would extend wilderness protection to roughly 315,000 acres in the Sawtooth and Salmon-Challis national forests in east-central Idaho.
"Up until recently you had a Congress that wasn't very receptive to wilderness designations, particularly on the House side," Spitler said. "We're finally starting to unclog the pipeline on wilderness designations."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.