In the midst of one of the most anti-conservation Congresses in the recent memory, a collection of Wilderness designation bills have been introduced by conservation leaders in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. On Monday, Colorado Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) reintroduced the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. The Act would expand existing wilderness areas, establish several new wildernesses in San Miguel and San Juan counties, and prohibit oil and gas development on select public lands in Colorado.
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act joins Wilderness legislation proposed last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME). Sen. Boxer's Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Act of 2011 would add roughly 21,000 acres to existing Wilderness areas in San Diego County, while Rep. Michaud's Maine Coastal Islands Wilderness Act of 2011 would designate 13 islands of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. These three bills represent a mounting voice for America's public lands and come on the heels of a momentous grassroots effort in Washington last week as part of National Wilderness Month.
Last week, over 200 conservation advocates from across the country met in Washington, DC to speak with their members of Congress and Senators in support of public lands as part of Great Outdoors America Week . The effort brought outdoor enthusiasts from all walks of life -- high school students and adults, active members of the military and veterans, conservationists and business leaders, hunters and anglers, bikers and boaters -- together to celebrate America's great outdoors, and ask their elected officials to protect our natural heritage.
Many Senators and Representatives openly embraced their constituents' bipartisan general message: that our wild places are important and should be protected for generations to come. However, some Great Outdoors America participants faced hesitancy or opposition when they ventured to speak with known opponents of wilderness legislation, who also happen to represent them and their neighbors in Washington.
Meeting with legislators who represent the opposite side of an issue is never an easy task. So the willingness and enthusiasm with which Great Outdoors America Week participants approached government officials speaks volumes, not only for their passion and mettle, but also for the significance of their mission. These volunteers went before their state leaders because America's natural heritage is important, because clean and untarnished wilderness is vital to public health, and because both are under attack.
Recently, members of both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation that threatens the lands that belong to all Americans. Rep. Rob Bishop's (R-UT) National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would yield all public lands, including National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and BLM lands within 100 miles of American land and maritime borders to the Department of Homeland Security. Seven other House bills would eviscerate the President's authority to designate new National Monuments granted under the Antiquities Act, a bipartisan law established by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. However, H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, introduced by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) may pose the greatest threat to America's wilderness and public lands.
The Act, aptly called the Great Outdoors Giveaway, would give away nearly 60 million acres of National Forest roadless lands and 6.7 million acres of BLM lands to industrial polluters. This dangerous bill would unravel decades of public lands protection in one fell swoop. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has referred to H.R. 1581 as "the most radical, overreaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of our public land laws that has been proposed in my lifetime."
Many Americans share Babbitt's concern, as evidenced by the many op-eds, editorials, Letters to the Editor written and visits made to Congress during Great Outdoors America Week. All of our country's leaders must recognize that America's natural legacy is in danger, and that their constituents want to protect our lands and waters for future generations.