For the second time this year, the Senate has passed a long-delayed bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, from a California mountain range to a forest in Virginia.
The 77-20 vote on Thursday sends the bill to the House, where final legislative approval could come as early as next week.
The Senate first approved the measure in January, but the House rejected it last week amid a partisan dispute over gun rights. The gun issue was not raised during Senate debate.
The legislation — a package of nearly 170 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and Oregon's Mount Hood to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.
Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections. The proposals would expand wilderness designation — which blocks nearly all development — into areas that now are not protected.
Supporters called the legislation among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in decades.
"The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority," said Paul Spitler of The Wilderness Society. "These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis."
The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.
Critics have called the project a "road to nowhere." Backers say the road is needed for residents of a remote village on the Bering Sea who now use a hovercraft to reach an airport and hospital.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, hailed the Idaho provision, which he has been seeking for eight years. The bill represents a compromise among a host of competing groups that have long disagreed over how to manage the rugged canyonland in southwestern Idaho.
"The people who worked on the Owyhee Initiative came from many groups and institutions that historically were battling head-to-head and instead were willing to work through things in a way that sets a tremendous example for how we should approach land management decisions and conflicts in this nation," Crapo said.
Lawmakers from both parties told similar tales in other states, praising the bill as a hard-fought compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has battled Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for months over the lands bill, said he was pleased the Senate was finally able to pass it on a bipartisan basis. Reid called the bill important to his home state, Nevada, and to the nation.
Coburn held up the bill's passage last year and again this year, arguing that it was unnecessary and would block energy development on millions of acres of federal land. The bill moved forward this week after Coburn was allowed to submit six amendments for approval. Five were defeated.
A sixth provision, softening a provision to impose criminal penalties for collecting some fossilized rocks on federal land, was included in the final bill.
Because of a parliamentary maneuver adopted in the Senate, the House is expected to take up the bill under a rule that blocks amendments or other motions to derail it. Republicans used the threat of an amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks to defeat the wilderness bill last week.
The bill is H.R. 146.
From Senator Bingaman's website:
Senate Approves Bingaman's Public Lands Bills
WASHINGTON – For the second time this year, the United States Senate today approved a package of bills introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, which contains several provisions to protect important sites in New Mexico. The package, which falls under the jurisdiction of Bingaman’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, passed the Senate in January but was revisited this week in hopes of ensuring speedy passage in the House of Representatives.
While the Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure two months ago, it failed to receive the support of two-thirds of the House of Representatives in a vote taken last week. The Senate took up the measure again today, this time with a clarification sought by some House members. Now, only a simple majority is needed to pass the House.
Among the measures included in the package is Bingaman’s “Prehistoric Trackways National Monument Establishment Act”, which seeks to protect 290 million-year old fossilized animal tracks in the Robledo Mountains in Doña Ana County. Specifically, the bill would create a new national monument out of approximately 5,367 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and preserve it for further scientific investigation.
“The fossilized tracks discovered in the Robledo Mountains are of incredible scientific value and this bill will ensure they are protected,” said Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The package also includes Bingaman’s Forest Landscape Restoration Act, which authorizes $40 million annually for landscape-scale forest restoration projects that cover 50,000 acres or more. Competitive grants would be awarded for restoration projects that are developed in collaboration with local communities. Eligible projects must be in need of ecosystem restoration, utilize the best-available science, encourage the use of restoration byproducts such as woody biomass, and be located primarily on National Forest System land.
“Forest restoration is key to helping prevent wild fires,” Bingaman said. “This bill will provide grants to communities who otherwise might not be able to partake in these prevention measures.”
Additionally, the package includes legislation Bingaman introduced that clears title to several tracks of land and paves the way for the city of Albuquerque to complete its development of a Biological Park along the middle Rio Grande. The Biological Park incorporates the Rio Grande Botanical Garden, Tingley Beach, the Zoo and the Aquarium.
“This legislation will finally clear up this title issue and make it possible for the bio-park to continue expanding,” Bingaman said.
Also in the package is a bill Bingaman co-authored to provide federal protection to the Snowy River formation within the Fort Stanton Cave in Lincoln County.
The Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area Act, which was first introduced in the last Congress by then-Senator Pete Domenici, will provide permanent protection to the Snowy River formation and protect it for future research and educational purposes. The formation contains a more than 4-mile-long continuous calcite-crystal river bed that is believed to be the longest one of its kind in the world.
"The Snowy River Cave is one-of-a-kind treasure and I am pleased this bill will help protect it for scientific and educational purposes,” Bingaman said.
Additionally, the package contains the National Landscape Conservation System Act, a measure sponsored by Bingaman, which codifies the National Landscape Conservation System, the collection of national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers and other landscapes on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Finally, the bill contains two measures that allow for the exchange of land in the Santa Fe National Forest; Pecos National Historical Park Land Exchange; Santa Fe National Forest Land Conveyance.
From Senator Udall's website:
SENATE AGAIN PASSES UDALL PROPOSAL TO CREATE SABINOSO WILDERNESS AREA
Legislation Contained in Bingaman Public Lands Package
WASHINGTON – By a vote of 77-20, the U.S. Senate today passed legislation to designate more than 17,000 acres in San Miguel County as wilderness. The Sabinoso Wilderness Act, legislation authored by Senator Tom Udall when he served in the House, was passed for a second time in a package of public land bills assembled by Senator Jeff Bingaman.
The proposed new wilderness area would contain lands currently included in the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area. The land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Udall, the BLM and local landowners worked together to develop this legislation to designate the area as wilderness, to protect the rugged and dramatic landscape. The area includes scenic canyons and mesas, which are home to a variety of wildlife, including mule deer, elk, mountain lions, and wild turkey. It is also rich in canyon vistas, including the 1,000-foot tall Canyon Largo, and impressive rock formations — all part of a vibrant Great Plains ecosystem.
“This legislation to protect and expand this amazing area for public us is the product of years of hard work on the local, state and federal level,” said Udall. “I want to thank Senator Bingaman for including it in his lands package, which has now passed the Senate twice, and I call on the House to pass it quickly. It is time the Sabinoso Wilderness Act became law.”
“This legislation gives Sabinoso the special attention it needs and deserves, and makes certain that it can be enjoyed by New Mexicans for years to come,” Bingaman said.
The New Mexico State House of Representatives, led by Representative Thomas Garcia, and the San Miguel County Commission both passed resolutions calling on the New Mexico Congressional delegation to support the establishment of the Sabinoso Wilderness Area. The wilderness area would be open for grazing, hunting and other recreational uses.
The legislation will now move to the House of Representatives for consideration. On March 11, 2009, the House fell two votes short of the two-thirds vote necessary to approve similar legislation under special rules for expedited consideration. The Senate previously passed the legislation by a vote of 73-22 in January.