Bill to Protect Wilderness Areas Is Defeated in House

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

A bill that would have designated 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness was narrowly defeated yesterday in the House when it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote.

The measure -- which has passed the Senate and would represent one of the largest expansions of public lands in a quarter-century -- received 282 yes and 144 no votes, leaving it two votes shy of passage. Conservation groups and many lawmakers said the package, which combined more than 170 bills, would preserve some of the nation's remaining pristine landscapes, but several Republicans argued that it would cost too much to implement and would stand in the way of needed energy development.

"At a time when we need jobs and we need energy independence, it's the wrong time to be tying up too much land," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), who added that some of the proposals merited approval, but "so many of the bills could never withstand an individual vote."

Despite the loss, Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America's Wilderness, said the proposal has significant support and should move forward. "It's a question of timing; that's the big issue," he said, adding that the defeat congressional leaders suffered under the fast-track "suspension" of House rules they adopted for the vote caught them by surprise. "They don't go into there thinking that they're going to lose a vote."

The bipartisan bill would apply to areas from Oregon's Mount Hood to part of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest. Other affected states are California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia.

House leaders are likely to bring up the bill again, but the timing remains unclear, said a senior Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The aide said the leadership would bring it up only under suspension, which requires a two-thirds vote, because the 1,200-page package is so complex that it could be tied up by procedural motions if it came up under regular order.

"We expect the Senate to send us something that we can pass," the aide said.

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