Wilderness in Congress: The Expected Onslaught
February 28, 2017
Wild public lands in the United States, especially those lands designated by Congress as Wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act, face the most serious threats and assaults in the half-century since the landmark law passed Congress. The new 115th Congress that began in 2017 is probably the most virulently anti-wilderness Congress ever, with wilderness-hating members chairing the key committees in both the House and Senate. That, coupled with the new bull-in-the-china-shop, pro-development Trump Administration, spells HUGE trouble for Wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act itself might easily be gutted. The very idea and definition of Wilderness could be lost.
Up until this year, even though the Republican party held majorities in both the House and Senate, anti-wilderness Republicans in Congress knew that their most egregious bills wouldn’t likely pass muster with the Obama Administration. And the Obama Administration did oppose many of the worst bills, testifying against some of the bills and threatening vetoes against others.
But now the backstop of the Obama Administration is gone. The new Trump Administration’s positions on Wilderness are not entirely clear at this point, but the early indications of advancing oil and gas drilling on public lands, of approving the construction of oil and tar sands pipelines, of promoting coal development, and of denying climate change all indicate that the new administration is more interested in developing public lands rather than protecting them. And without the backstop of the Obama Administration, the anti-wilderness Members of Congress are gearing up their attack on Wilderness, figuratively salivating at the opportunity to pass their worst anti-wilderness bills and have them signed into law by Donald Trump.
Already the bill introductions have begun. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) have introduced bills (S. 101/HR 218) to force construction of a new road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness in Alaska, which Wilderness Watch has fought since 2009. Sen. Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has pushed this issue hard for many years and may finally succeed this time around.
Other expected bills to damage Wilderness will likely soon come, too. These include bills we fought in the last Congress, such as the bill to open up all Wildernesses nationwide to mountain biking, and the bill to open the entire National Wilderness Preservation System to commercial filming. The Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI), which would radically weaken the very definition of Wilderness, may well be reintroduced again by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who chairs the Natural Resources Committee. And legislation has just passed the House (H.J. Res. 69) to overturn protections for bears, wolves, wolverines, and other native carnivores in national wildlife refuges in Alaska.
But perhaps the most sinister bill that will surely be reintroduced is the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act. Last year’s House version of this bill would allow nearly unlimited damage and manipulation of Wildernesses by state or federal agencies if even remotely connected to hunting, fishing, shooting sports, or fish and wildlife management. Many state agencies in many western states despise federal Wildernesses, and this bill would allow them to drive motor vehicles into Wilderness, build water developments, conduct logging or chaining, or engage in all sorts of other ecological manipulations if even remotely done for some habitat purpose. These provisions would even allow a state game agency, for example, to bulldoze a road for 10 miles into a Wilderness, build a dam, stock fish, build a cabin for employees, and then drive their pickups into the Wilderness to check on their fish. Of all the anti-wilderness bills introduced in recent Congresses, the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act is the most destructive to Wilderness and the least understood.
So what can we do to fight against this terribly grim outlook for Wilderness? At Wilderness Watch, we’re organizing to resist the onslaught. We will work with our colleague organizations, we will notify and activate the public, and we will fight the anti-wilderness congressional agenda. We will also work to educate and activate our supporters in the U.S. Senate who, even though they are in the minority, still retain influence to stall or block some of the bad anti-wilderness bills through the threat of filibusters. We are also creating a new organizer staff position to help activate citizens to counter the threats. And we will continue to call on you, our committed members, to help save our priceless wilderness heritage for future generations. Please join with us to Save The Wild!
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Contact both of your U.S. Senators and ask them to oppose the resolution (H.J. Res. 69/S.J. Res. 18) to overturn protections for bears, wolves, wolverines, and other wildlife species from unethical hunting practices on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.