House Approves Wilderness Bills

The House approved a series of bills Monday to protect national forest land in the West, including the designation of new wilderness areas in three Western states.

WASHINGTON — The House approved a series of bills Monday to protect national forest land in the West, including the designation of new wilderness areas in three Western states.

The bills would create nearly 670,000 acres of new wilderness and protect 47 miles of wild and scenic rivers in California, Idaho and Oregon, as well as ban drilling in northern New Mexico's Valle Vidal.

The bills would protect about 277,000 acres in California, 315,000 acres in Idaho and 77,200 acres in Oregon. In all, about 1,046 square miles of new wilderness would be created.

The unanimous votes -- which sent the bills to the Senate -- were unusual, particularly since they involved wilderness expansion, typically a contentious process. Wilderness designation forbids commercial exploitation and motorized recreation.

These bills, however, have all been in the works for years and represent compromise among groups from business owners to ranchers, local governments, recreation advocates, conservationists and Indian tribes.

A fourth bill would protect Valle Vidal -- or Valley of Life -- a region in New Mexico's Carson National Forest where energy companies have expressed interest in drilling for coal-bed methane. Thousands of people have said they oppose drilling in the valley, including all the state's congressional delegation except Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., wrote the House bill, which passed Monday, to make the area off limits to drillers. The measure would withdraw roughly 101,000 acres of the Carson National Forest from mineral exploration or development.

The area is known for horseback riding and hiking trails, livestock grazing and wildlife habitat. Roughly 40,000 acres are being considered for possible mineral development.

The California bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. would designate more than 277,000 acres of northern California as wilderness and approximately 79,000 acres as a recreation management area for off-road vehicles and mountain bikes.

Dubbed the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act, the bill would protect some of the most breathtaking and remote areas in California, including portions of Mendocino National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest and stretches of undeveloped beach and coastal bluffs in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

The Oregon bill would create more than 77,200 acres of new wilderness preserves in the Mount Hood National Forest. The Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act would be the first new wilderness --the most restrictive of federal land designations -- in the 1.1 million-acre forest since 1984. The bill was sponsored by Oregon Reps. Greg Walden, a Republican, and Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat.

The Idaho bill would designate three new wilderness areas comprising 315,215 acres in the rugged mountain peaks of the Sawtooth and Challis national forests, while conveying other public land to the state and local governments. It also would add 600 acres to the existing Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Source: Associated Press

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