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Near-Miss in Congress For Wilderness

The Pit River Canyon wilderness study area in northeastern California includes 13 miles of the free-flowing river.
The Pit River Canyon wilderness study area in northeastern California includes 13 miles of the free-flowing river. | Photo: BLM/Flickr/Creative Commons License 

More than 2,100 square miles of protected lands in California will keep that status for the time being, as a move to strip wilderness study areas of protection failed Wednesday in the U.S. Senate.

Senate Amendment 166, which had been tacked on to the bill approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, would have stripped protection from all wilderness study areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unless Congress agreed within a year to grant those areas full wilderness status.

The amendment, which fell ten votes shy on Wednesday of the 60 it would have needed to become part of the Keystone bill, would have effectively ended protection on 80 California wilderness study areas managed by the BLM, covering more than 1,360,000 acres throughout the state. Millions of acres across the country are currently included in wilderness study areas.

Wilderness study area status is generally given to areas being considered for full and permanent protection as wilderness. The interim study area designation is essentially just as stringent as wilderness designation, though it's temporary: The managing agency can study an area and decide not to recommend it as wilderness. But the intent of designating a piece of the landscape as a wilderness study area is to make sure any wilderness characteristics in the study area are still there when the agency and Congress get around to making their decisions.

Given the makeup of this Congress, it's unlikely that any wilderness study areas will be given protected Wilderness status in the next year, so the amendment would have essentially ended protection for those 80 parcels.

Wilderness advocates are breathing a sigh of relief, but they point out that this amendment, offered up by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, is just one of the first salvos aimed at public land protection by an increasingly conservative Congress. A pair of bills pending in both houses of Congress, S.228 and H.R.330, for example, would restrict the White House's ability to use the Antiquities Act to designate National Monuments.

"The Wilderness Society is outraged by these deliberate assaults on our nation's lands and waters but we're pleased that cooler heads prevailed and these anti-conservation amendments failed," said the Wilderness Society's Jeremy Garncarz.

"We cannot put a price tag on amenities like parks, monuments, and wilderness, but removing protections from these lands is a direct attack on our nation's heritage and would rob our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to experience and explore the wild America that remains," added Garncarz.

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