Millions of Wilderness Acres in California Threatened Under Legislation, Warns Group

Border Patrol agents patrol the U.S. border with Mexico seen on Aug. 25, 2010, near Nogales, Ariz. | U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill via a Creative Commons LIcense

Imagine a new Joshua Tree National Park: operated by a Border Patrol that allows unregulated building of roads, ignores environmental standards and shuts down access in the name of national security.

This is just one of the many worst-case scenarios outlined by The Wilderness Society, a Washington-based Conservation Association, in response to policy threats floating in Congress right now.

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Last week, the society held a teleconference in tandem with the release of their report Giving Away Our Great Outdoors: Wilderness Under Siege. According to it, the 112th Congress is seriously threatening many of the country's remaining wilderness areas.

There were a combination of panelists on the line, ranging from a policy expert to a professional photographer, all expressing the deepest concern of what would happen to the wild places in their states, should any of the legislation go through.

Dave Alberswerth, senior policy adviser at The Wilderness Society, explained that a few of the bills are marked up already and moving through Congress quickly. He was particularly concerned about the Border Patrol Bill, which is in the Homeland Security Committee, and H.R. 3407: Alaskan Energy for American Jobs Act--the bill on drilling in the Artic Wildlife refuge.

Sarah James, Chairperson, Gwichin Steering Committee, Elder and Board Member of the Neet'sai Gwich'in, Arctic Village explained, "This is a human rights issue. Our culture is thousands of years old. It is more important than gas prices."

California would face a number of threats, according to The Wilderness Society:

The representatives promoting the bills have a different take.

At a subcommittee hearing in 2011, Congressman Kevin McCarthy said the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011 would make cleaning brush easier, generate jobs for gateway communities, promote development, and create easier access to outdoor sports through the use of motorized vehicles. Plus, these areas didn't even make the "wilderness" cut.

"Where I represent"--California-- "there are 11 Wilderness Study Areas in which more than 18,000 acres have been deemed unsuitable for wilderness," he said. "There are seven roadless areas within the Sequoia National Forest around Lake Isabella, with over 200,000 acres that have been recommended not suitable for wilderness. Actively enjoying the land through recreational activities benefit our local communities across the West."

As far as the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, KCET has reported and commented on various marijuana cultivation sites on our public lands and the danger it poses to the environment and public safety.

Rob Bishop (R-UT) honed in on this issue when the bill was presented in 2010.

"What many fail to recognize is that allowing the USBP [United States Border Patrol] to apprehend and deter trains of criminal traffickers will not only remedy weaknesses in border security, but also improve the health and vitality of our protected federal lands, which have been severely damaged by years of abuse from drug and human traffickers. National Security and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive, however with current DOI [Department of Interior] policies, neither is being accomplished," Bishop concluded.

Bishop is also in favor of dismantling the presidential power implemented in the Antiquities Act, calling executive overreach at the expense of the local community. The proposed bills would instate Congressional approval.

Denny Rehburg (R-MT) said it bluntly: "This is about standing against the insufferable arrogance of Washington, D.C. that assumes an unelected bureaucrat can make better decisions from behind a desk than the folks who live and work the land."

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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