Is This The Worst Wilderness Congress in History?

A bill pending in Congress would designate land in Pinnacles National Monument as wilderness while also changing its name to Pinnacles National Park. | Photo: MiguelVieira/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's no wonder wilderness bills aren't getting passed. The exchange over oil and gas extraction on public lands during the second presidential debate resulted in the following heated 26-second transaction:

Video: New York Times; Editing: Splicd.com

The sentiments over public land usage expressed during the presidential debate are equally as contentiousness in congressional committees. The 112th Congress is notorious for clogging the pipes, and wilderness is no exception. Presently, there are 22 bi-partisan wilderness bills sitting in Congress, including five from California.

"If they don't pass anything by the end of the year, it's fair to call this the most anti-wilderness Congress in history," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society.

If the legislation fails to get through, areas like the Mojave Desert, the San Gabriel Mountains, and areas along the California coast will remain unprotected. Once they become developed, they lose the chance to be protected as pristine wilderness.

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"In the California desert, for example, there are a whole slew of development proposals for roads and energy," Spitler said. "With wilderness, those are put off the table. Without the wilderness protection, you can see those areas developed. That would be a tragedy." Of all the proposed bills, the California Desert Protection Act (S. 138) is the only one that has not been discussed either in the House or the Senate.

"These lands are targeted for protection because they contain outstanding ecological, scenic, and recreational values," Spitler later followed-up in an email.

The desert bill would expand Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Mojave National Preserve. The unamended Pinnacles National Park bill would protect the chaparral hillsides and canyon creeks, which are home to a rich array of native plant and animal communities. The Beauty Mountain Agua Tibia Wilderness Act of 2011 (H.R. 41/S. 1574) would protect a total of 21,000 acres of exceptional rock formations. A wilderness proposal in the Angeles National Forest would continue to protect L.A. County's water supply, more than one-third of which comes from the Angeles National Forest. The Los Padres Conservation and Recreation Act (H.R. 4109) would protect scenic lands along California's central coast, as well as vital habitats for numerous threatened and imperiled species including the majestic California condor.

President Lyndon B. Johnson right after signing the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964. | Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Republican Politics and Wilderness

Every congress since 1964 has designated new wilderness areas, often drawing support from both major political parties. "Wilderness has historically been a bipartisan tradition. The original wilderness act of 1964 only had one dissenting vote. When you look at the bills coming to Congress a lot of them have bipartisan support. There are three bills coming from Republicans in California," said Spitler. "Members of your own party want to pass wilderness bills in their congressional district, why won't you move them?"

"It's politics," affirmed Jim DiPeso the policy director for ConservAmerica, a Republican-based conservation group. "Wilderness has been caught up in this overly polarized, overly politicized environment, where it's not politically correct for a Republican to support public lands. And this is a radical departure in recent years from our country's history."

DiPeso also sees a philosophical rift at the core of the wilderness bill halts. "Some are simply opposed to any kind of protection of land or have a philosophical objection to the government holding any land at all. They want those lands to be open for development: mining, logging, and extraction," the latter in particular, he emphasized. This more radical faction of thought has always been there, Di Peso explained, but it's now getting more attention and people are gaining positions of power.

"There is a small but active element in the Republican element in the house that does not support wilderness," Spitzer of the Wilderness Society said. He holds Doc Hastings, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, most accountable. Di Peso sees a few other key people in the Committee as holding up the show: Tom McClintock of California, Paul Broun of Georgia, Raul Labrador, a key party freshman from Idaho, and most significantly, Rob Bishop, chair of the House's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. "These people hold views that are very much out of the mainstream, when it comes to views idea of public lands," Di Peso said, citing a Colorado College poll, which showed overwhelming bi-partisan support of conservation in the West.

Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is just one of the already-designated wilderness areas in California. | Photo: AGrinberg/Flickr/Creative Commons License

What is Wilderness?

Only Congress can designate Wilderness areas. (There was an attempt to allegedly circumvent this with the "Wild Land" Policy from the Department of the Interior, which created uproar and was quickly extinguished in 2011.)

The vast majority of public lands are managed by two Agencies: The National Forest Service (NFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- the National Park Service (NPS) is another smaller, but more known agency. Once an area is deigned "wilderness," it is managed by the same organization, but with further restrictions.

"Wilderness remains open to people, open to activities like hunting and fishing, and nature observation," Spitzer explained. But the land is put off limits to development of new roads, buildings, or motorized vehicles.

"Often times National Parks have wilderness areas designated within them. Yosemite Valley is within the National Park, but it's not wilderness," Spitzer elaborated. There are hotels, roads, and services for people. "But the backcountry areas are designated wilderness and free of roads."

Once an area has been developed, there is no going back: it can no longer be classified as wilderness, and receive those protections in perpetuity.

"We think some places are just too special to drill and should be reserved for the people," Spitler said.

My attempts to reach Doc Hastings and Rob Bishop failed. I was redirected to Crystal Feldman, Press Secretary at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. She told me where to find information on legislation and last major actions, but gave no rational behind the choices to block wilderness.

I received no answer as to why a designation of 2,710 acres of wilderness in the proposal to turn Pinnacles National Monument into Pinnacles National Park in Central California was stricken from the bill, despite a plea from Victor Knox, Associate Director of Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands for the National Park Service, only a month prior to the amendment.

Work being done on public lands in Nevada to determine if there are oil and gas deposits underneath the surface and whether to continue with drilling exploration. | Photo: BLM Nevada/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Oil and Gas Vs. Tourism

A core rift in the debate is where delegates find the economic value in public lands. The aforementioned political leaders are passionately protective of oil and gas leasing and contracts, and they see public lands as containing important mineral resources that might boost a bad economy, and create jobs.

Bishop, who is Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, comes from a state where the BLM owns 42% of the land, according to their own estimates. So it's understandable that he is particularly sensitive to the issue of land management. "If you're going to have significant economic development you have to have affordable and ample energy. And, in the State of Utah, if you're going to have energy development, its going have to involve public lands," Bishop reportedly said at an energy summit.

Bishop's general view on the creation of new public lands can be best summarized in the following exchange from the committee's 2012 budget proposal meeting in March of 2011:

Congressmen Tom McClintock of the 4th District, California is more focused on the Forest Service, as seen in a clip from a Subcommittee hearing in 2011:

And is further emphasized in the committee's 2012 budget proposal meeting in March of 2011:

In the same hearing, after being grilled by McClintock as to why land was being inventoried for wilderness and not oil and gas resources, Abbey estimated that the BLM alone is resting on approximately 280 million acres with moderate to high oil and gas potential, based on various studies from 2005 to 2008.

The Wilderness Society, on the other hand, emphasizes the economic value of tourism and outdoor adventure. According to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association, national outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supports nearly 6.5 million jobs across the U.S. Americans spend nearly double the amount on outdoor recreation than they do on gas and fuel, and there are triple the amount of jobs in outdoor recreation than in the oil and gas industry. In California, outdoor rec contributes $46 billion annually to California's economy and supports 408,000 jobs across California. If certain areas are developed, this tourism might be lost.

The Timeline

Post election, the 112th Congress now has about a month left to act. Spitzer remains optimistic that things can change. "First and foremost, people should contact their members of congress and ask them to take action in the wilderness area. Particularly in trying economic times, people need wilderness areas. Once you go to these wonderful lands you can't help but fall in love with them. These are your public lands," he said. "We're hopeful. It's never easy to predict what congress is going to do, we will try to help congress improve its wilderness legacy in the final days."

DiPeso of ConservAmerica was slightly less sanguine. "Congress is probably not going to take up much of this legislation. They'll have a lame duck session and they'll have to deal with the economy," he said, predicting that most of the wilderness legislation would expire with the 112th congress. "We're hoping that when the 113th convenes, these bills will come up again, and perhaps more sensible views will prevail."

A portion of the proposed addition to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness in the Angeles National Forest | Photo: Courtesy Steve Evans, Friends of the River

The California Bills
Info from the Wilderness society

  • Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial counties"¨: The California Desert Protection Act (S. 138), would protect nearly 1.5 million acres of southern California's unique desert lands by creating two new national monuments, adding over 346,000 acres of wilderness, expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, and protecting Route 66. This bill was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
  • San Benito and Monterey counties: "¨The Pinnacles National Park Act (H.R 3641/S. 161) would upgrade Pinnacles from a national monument to a national park, while also adding nearly 3,000 acres of the monument to the National Wilderness Preservation System. This bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), and in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). It passed the House without wilderness protection provisions.
  • San Diego County: The Beauty Mountain Agua Tibia Wilderness Act of 2011 (H.R. 41/S. 1574) would protect a total of 21,000 acres of exceptional rock formations, steep canyons and chaparral and oak woodlands. This bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA).
  • Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties: "¨The Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act (H.R. 113) would protect an additional 18,000 acres of public lands in the San Gabriel Mountains as wilderness. This bill was introduced by Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) and co-sponsored by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA).
  • Santa Barbara and Ventura counties: "¨The Los Padres Conservation and Recreation Act (H.R. 4109) would protect 64,000 acres of wilderness, establish an 18,000-acre scenic area, and designate 89 miles of wild and scenic rivers in southern California. This bill was introduced by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA).

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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