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While the federal government’s relationship with nature gets dominated by combative issues — our inability to effectively address climate change, Bush’s insistent campaigning for energy exploration in ANWR, etc. — Congress has very quietly pursued an aggressive agenda to protect America’s last wild places.
The Washington Post reports that over 2 million acres in 12 different pristine areas across the nation could enjoy new wilderness designation. These bills would give places like West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest and Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness the highest environmental protection afforded by the law. If all the bills pass, the new wilderness acreage will equal the total amount given by Congress in the last five years.
“It may not seem like it on most issues, but in this one arena Congress is getting things across the goal line,” said Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “Nobody gets everything they want, but by coming together, talking with age-old adversaries and seeking common ground, wilderness protection is finding Main Street support and becoming motherhood-and-apple-pie.”
A couple of things created this sea change in the government, including Democratic control of Congress and the ouster of Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who chaired the House Resources committee and singlehandedly blocked several attempts to create new wildernesses. Since Pombo’s re-election defeat, his replacement, Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), has gone so far as to rename the committee to emphasize their new mandate.
“When I changed the name from Resources to Natural Resources, it wasn’t just for cosmetic reasons — it’s for what I view as the real guts of the responsibility of this committee,” said Pombo’s successor, Rep. Nick J. Rahall. “To those critics who say, ‘Why do we need new wilderness?’ I say these areas already are wilderness. We simply want to preserve them as they are.”
The house has already passed six wilderness bills, and another four could be accepted by the end of the year. Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness, which already passed in May, protects acres of lowland forests, glacial-melt rivers, and high peaks.
Despite their willingness to open millions of acres of public land in Alaska and the Rockies for oil and gas drilling, the article also credits a latent desire in President Bush to create a wild legacy before his exit early next year. Better late than never, I guess.
— Ted Alvarez