Lawmakers propose sweeping Western wilderness area
Bill, originated by Eastern legislators, draws scorn of Rehberg, Cubin
By NOELLE STRAUB
Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Two East Coast lawmakers introduced a bill Friday with 73 co-sponsors that would designate as wilderness 23 million public acres in five Northern Rocky Mountain states, including Montana and Wyoming.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., wrote the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. It would give the government's strongest protections to areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. They announced the measure along with singer and songwriter Carole King. Three co-sponsors are from Washington and three from Oregon. Both Montana and Wyoming's representatives condemned the bill and vowed to fight it.
Similar measures have been introduced in several previous Congresses. But this time, the chairmen of the House Natural Resources Committee and the relevant subcommittee have both signed on as sponsors of the bill. A panel spokeswoman said the committee is reviewing the legislation now and may hold hearings on it, although there are no immediate plans for one.
The bill would designate as wilderness all 20 million acres of inventoried roadless lands in the states and another 3 million acres in Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. It includes 7 million acres in Montana and 5 million acres in Wyoming.
A wilderness designation generally prohibits timber harvesting and permanent roads, structures and facilities. Hunting, fishing and other recreational activities generally are allowed.
Maloney and Shays said the bill would protect some of the country's most beautiful and ecologically important lands. They said it would save taxpayers $245 million over 10 years by managing the land as wilderness and eliminating "subsidized development" there. They said more than 2,300 jobs would be created through the bill's program to rip out old logging roads and restore the areas to their natural state.
"NREPA has always been ahead of its time by drawing wilderness boundaries according to science, not politics," Maloney said in a prepared statement. "NREPA would also help mitigate the effects of global warming by protecting the corridors through which vulnerable wildlife can migrate to cooler areas."
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said all legislation on public lands must take into consideration the opinions of local communities and people who depend on the resources for work and recreation. "I oppose this legislation because it's a top-down approach that doesn't properly take into account the impacts on the local economy nor does it adequately protect access for hunting, fishing and other forms of recreation," Rehberg said in a prepared statement. "I'll continue to work to implement responsible policies to protect Montana's natural resources."
Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., called the bill a "147-page assault on our Western way of life" and said local input and control would be slipping away. "This is an absolutely offensive attempt by East Coast liberals to create sweeping, over-reaching laws for Western public lands without any public input from the folks living in Wyoming who would be heavily impacted by this legislation," Cubin said in a prepared statement. "I have always supported a carefully balanced multiple-use policy when it comes to public lands, and this bill would essentially do away with that type of sensible evaluation."
Cubin said the wilderness designation on Wyoming public lands could lead to "tremendously negative impacts" on local economies. "Legislation this bad does not warrant committee attention, but if that happens, Wyoming citizens need to know that I will be fighting this bill tooth and nail," she said.
In the Greater Glacier/Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, the core of which is Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the bill would place about 2.2 million acres under wilderness designation.
In the greater Yellowstone region, about 6.5 million acres would be designated wilderness.
About 2.7 million acres of mountain ranges separated by prairies, including the Bighorn, Big Snowy, Pryor, Elkhorn and Caribou mountains, would become wilderness.
About 129,000 acres within the Lewis and Clark National Forest and known as the Badger-Two Medicine Area would be designated the Blackfeet Wilderness.
About 6.2 million acres in the Greater Salmon/Selway region, about 1.1 million acres in the Greater Cabinet/ Yaak/Selkirk ecosystem, and about 525,000 acres in the Greater Hells Canyon ecosystem would become wilderness.
About 8.5 million acres would be designated as biological connecting corridors in the Bitterroot, Sapphire, Lost River, Lemhi and Bridger mountain ranges. Another 1 million acres would be wildland recovery areas, meaning work would be done to return the areas to their natural state after development activities.
Hundreds of miles of rivers and creeks in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho would receive the designation of wild and scenic rivers.