Congress Poised to Add 2 Million Acres to Off-Limits Federal ‘Wilderness’ Lands
“This provision would permanently take 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil out of production,” according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
On a 285-140 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 on Wednesday. The Senate passed it earlier. Among other things, the bill will expand the 107 million acres of federally owned wilderness area in the United States by more than 2 million acres.
“After nearly a decade during which our parks were taken for granted and our range lands were scarred by a spider-web of roads and (drilling) well pads, (the bill) represents a new dawn for America's heritage and American values," Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told the Associated Press after the vote.
The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), creates 60 new federally protected wilderness areas in nine states.
Idaho, with 517,000 acres designated as “wilderness areas,” would become the state with the largest number of wilderness areas as a result of the legislation.
In addition, the bill will lock 26 million acres of BLM-managed land into a National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a move that environmentalists say would permanently “protect” the land.
NLCS, which was first established in 2000 by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, includes wilderness lands, conservation areas, national monuments, wild rivers, and historic trails overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation, which makes NLCS status permanent, would add 227,000 acres of BLM land to the NCLS.
According to BLM, 16 percent of the 607 million acres of land owned by the federal government is currently designated as wilderness in the form of 708 National Wilderness Areas located across the U.S., with most located in Western states.
Under the 1964 federal Wilderness Act, "wilderness" land is defined as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
The Senate approved the legislation on Jan. 15, with a bipartisan vote of 73-21. But on March 11, Republicans in the House fell two votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage. By Wednesday, they had mustered three more votes needed to pass the bill.
After the first House vote, Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) criticized the bill, saying it would hinder energy independence, spend money on “pork projects,” “drive up energy prices,” “transfer power from the people to the government” – and make government “the nation’s largest landlord.”
“This is not the agenda of the American people,” Price said. “With Americans looking for economic relief, now is not the time to obstruct American energy production.”
But Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society, told CNSNews.com that the bill does not obstruct energy production, and environmental groups are pleased at its passage.
“The areas that will be designated wilderness by this bill are for the most part areas that aren’t highly regarded for their energy potential,” the Wilderness Society’s national wilderness campaigns associate director said.
As for Wyoming losing out on natural gas and oil production, Spitler told CNSNews.com: “There are some landscapes that are simply more important for their scenic, natural, recreational and ecological values than they are for oil and gas development.”
Opponents like Price, meanwhile, also decried the price tag of the bill.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts over five years the bill will cost about $5.5 billion in discretionary spending and will increase mandatory spending by "more than $900 million."
Overall, according to the CBO, the bill will cost a total $6.4 billion.
Some of the spending includes $10 million for the Department of Agriculture’s National Forest Service, to restore watershed programs, craft new wild-land fire precautions.
Other appropriations include:
-- $4 million for a new Department of Interior program that promotes non-violent tactics to protect livestock from being devoured by wolves.
-- $3.5 million under the National Park Service appropriations for the 450th anniversary celebration of the city of St. Augustine, Fla.
President Obama is expected to sign the 1,248-page legislation, which contains more than 170 different bills, into law soon.