Congress Pushes to Keep Land Untamed

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

INDEX, Wash. -- With little fanfare, Congress has embarked on a push to protect as many as a dozen pristine areas this year in places ranging from the glacier-fed streams of the Wild Sky Wilderness here to West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest. By the end of the year, conservation experts predict, this drive could place as much as 2 million acres of unspoiled land under federal control, a total that rivals the wilderness acreage set aside by Congress over the previous five years.

A confluence of factors is driving this wilderness renaissance: the shift in Congress from Republican to Democratic control; environmentalists' decision to take a more pragmatic approach in which they enlist local support for their proposals by making concessions to opposing interests; and some communities' recognition that intact ecosystems can often offer a greater economic payoff than extractive industries.

"It may not seem like it on most issues, but in this one arena Congress is getting things across the goal line," said Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America's Wilderness. "Nobody gets everything they want, but by coming together, talking with age-old adversaries and seeking common ground, wilderness protection is finding Main Street support and becoming motherhood-and-apple-pie."

Against the backdrop of Bush administration policies that have opened up millions of acres of public land to oil and gas exploration, logging and other commercial uses, environmental advocates and lawmakers argue that it makes sense to cordon off more of the country's most unspoiled places.

The administration has offered more than 40 million acres in the Rockies for oil and gas drilling and other "extractive" uses, according to the Wilderness Society, and it has done the same with 70 million acres in the Alaskan Arctic. In addition, the Forest Service estimates that development eliminates 6,000 acres of the open space every day.

The administration has generally favored expanding wilderness acreage, letting Congress determine which areas should be protected and how. Part of this stems from the fact that nearly all of these bills have broad constituencies, which include local faith, business and hunting groups as well as GOP officeholders. And as Bush approaches the end of his second term, he is eyeing opportunities to leave his mark on the nation's landscape.

In the first wilderness designation this year, the Wild Sky Wilderness became law in May. It set aside more than 106,000 acres of low-elevation, old-growth forest and jagged mountain peaks crisscrossed by streams that feature wild salmon and steelhead runs.

The logging business has largely died out in Index, a town less than two hours from Seattle, and residents see the wilderness as a way to promote the recreational activities that now help drive the local economy.

"In the past 30 years, we've seen this town move into an entirely recreational economy," said Bill Cross, a former city council member in Index who helped lobby for the designation. "I see Wild Sky as an extension of that."

Wilderness areas, which have the strictest level of federal protection, account for just over 107 million acres nationwide -- 4.8 percent of the nation's land mass, roughly half of it in Alaska. Federal law prohibits mechanized transport in wilderness areas, but they are open to such activities as hiking and fishing.

In recent weeks the House has passed six wilderness bills, including Wild Sky, that would protect more than 500,000 acres. The Senate Energy and Resources Committee has approved another four wilderness bills and the panel could pass more, an effort that Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said was aimed at addressing "some pent-up demand for bills that had been in the works for most of the last decade."

Although several factors have spurred the flurry of legislative activity, much of it stems from the fact that former House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) -- who fiercely opposed designating any new wilderness -- lost his seat in 2006. As many as a dozen bills are expected to pass this year, and another seven have been introduced recently.

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