Rockies Wilderness Bill resurfaces in Congress

In the midst of the most severe recession in nearly three decades, a group of Eastern lawmakers is pushing legislation that would bring resource-based economic activity to a screeching halt in broad swaths of the rural West.

The “Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act” (H.R. 980), sponsored by Rep. Caroline Maloney (D-NY), is the largest wilderness-designation bill targeting an area in the lower 48 states.  All told, the bill covers some 24 million acres of land and would designate more than 1,800 miles of rivers as “wild and scenic.”  States whose land would be designated as wilderness include Idaho (9.5 million acres), Montana (7 million acres), Wyoming (5 million acres), Oregon (750,000 acres), and Washington (500,000 acres). 

Supporters of the bill say it is designed to protect the habitat of grizzly bears, elk, caribou, salmon, and others species in the Northern Rockies. They also note that the legislation will restore more than 6,000 miles of damaged or unused roads and create “biological connecting corridors” between large parcels of federal land.

Maloney’s bill currently has 75 co-sponsors, not a single one of whom represents a district that is covered by the legislation. Indeed, Maloney’s New York City-based district is located 2,000 east of the area she would designate as wilderness.  However, the bill has garnered the enthusiastic support of environmental groups, former President Jimmy Carter, and singer Carole King.

Lawmakers from Western states directly affected by the bill make no secret of their contempt for what they see as an attempt by outsiders to undermine the livelihood of their constituents.  “This regurgitated bill flies in the face of that process by failing to seek input from a single, community, county, state or member of Congress affected by the proposed legislation,” commented Cynthia Loomis (R-Wyoming.).  “East coast politicians would do well to follow the West’s lead on proper land management, not throw rocks from their Manhattan glass houses.” Wilderness designation greatly restricts access to the area in question and could put a swift end to energy development and transmission, mining, logging, infrastructure improvements, and many recreational activities. So vast is the bill’s scope that even the Obama administration has expressed reservations about Maloney’s legislation.

The “Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act” was first introduced in 1992, but it has never come up for a vote on the House floor.  In an effort to win more support for their measure, the bill’s backers renamed it the “Rockies Prosperity Act” in 2005, a ruse that fell on deaf ears in the House.

In calling for the establishment of “biologically connected corridors,” the most recent version of the bill is clearly in line with one of the most radical ideas ever to emerge from the environmental movement, the Wildlands Project.  Described by Science magazine as “the most ambitious proposal for land management since the Louisiana purchase of 1803,” the Wildlands Project calls for “a network of wilderness reserves, buffer zones, and wildlife corridors stretching across huge tracks of land – hundreds of millions of acres, as much as half of the continent.  According to Science, the long-term goal of the Wildlands Project is “nothing less that the transformation of America from a place where 4.7 percent of the land is wilderness to an archipelago of human-inhabited islands surrounded by natural areas.”

According to its website, the Wildlands Project has a “one-hundred-year vision,” which is:

“To create a continental-scale network of connected wildlands, linking together wildlands from Mexico to the Yukon, from Florida to the Yukon, from Baja California to the Brooks Range and the Bering Sea.  Connections between the North Woods and the Great Plains and the great northern boreal forest must also be recreated.”

The idea for the Wildlands Project originated in the early 1990s at a meeting of the Foundation for Deep Ecology.  Dave Foreman, formerly with the Wilderness Society and founder of Earth First!, guided the project’s fortunes in the early years, together with conservation biologists, Michael Soule and Reed Noss.  Originally located in Tucson, Arizona, the Wildlands Project is now based in Richmond, Vermont. The Wildlands Project aims to return 50 percent of the continental U.S. to a “natural” state.      

In keeping with the word and spirit of the Maloney bill, it calls for establishing a system of core wilderness areas where human activity would be prohibited.  Biological “corridors” would link the “core areas,” serving as highways allowing nonhumans to pass from one to another.  Buffer zones would be established around the core areas and their interlocking corridors.  Only outside the core areas would human activities such as agriculture and industrial production be permitted.  The goal is to overcome what conservation biologists Soule and Noss refer to as the “fragmentation of habitat.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.