Pass a Public Lands Bill: Preserving Wilderness Should be a Bipartisan Priority

by the Register-Guard editorial board

There aren’t many issues on which Democrats and Republicans can agree these days, but one of them should be the importance of preserving the wilderness that provides refuge, preserves intact ecosystems and symbolizes the rugged nature of the American character.

The Wilderness Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964. After eight years of intensive work and with only one dissenting vote in the House, Congress passed legislation that preserved 9 million acres of wild and free country for future generations of Americans to explore and savor.

The legislation also laid out a framework for the future expansion of the nation’s store of protected wilderness. Until recently Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do just that, even when they were far apart on other issues of the day.

Every president since 1964 has signed legislation that increased this nation’s wilderness holdings. (It might surprise contemporary Republicans to learn that Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness-protection laws than any other president.)

After passage of a bipartisan public lands bill in 2009, designated wilderness areas covered 109 million acres in 758 areas in 44 states. But there has been no new wilderness legislation in nearly three years, as congressional gridlock has extended into what was once — and what should be again — the partisanship-free zone of wilderness preservation.

The public lands outlook in the current session is bleak but not hopeless. Tea-party conservatives in the House and Senate reflexively oppose any bills creating new wilderness. Even Republicans who have introduced wilderness bills are unable to get floor votes in the House or overcome filibusters in the Senate.

In 2009, lawmakers found a way to overcome these roadblocks by combining wilderness legislation from many states in a single grab-bag public lands bill. Called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, the legislation lumped 160 federal-lands bills together — enough to compete for floor time, attract bipartisan support and overcome opposition from lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican and serial obstructionist who objects that wilderness bills provide no new funding to pay for their protection.

Republicans already have some skin in the public lands game. The wilderness bills that are stuck in the House and Senate include proposals by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to protect 21,000 acres in San Diego County, and a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to expand a wilderness area in Washington state.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate should take those and other Republican proposals and roll them together with Democratic bills into a single omnibus public lands bill. That legislation should include several wilderness proposals from Oregon, including the Wild Rogue, which would expand the iconic Wild Rogue Wilderness by 58,000 acres and designate 93 miles of tributaries as wild and scenic rivers. The Rogue proposal has been introduced in two previous congresses as a national wild and scenic rivers package and, like the other Oregon wilderness proposals, has significant support from the business community and from local and state officials.

Others include the Devil’s Staircase, 30,000 acres in the remote Wassen Creek roadless area in the central Coast Range between the Smith and Umpqua rivers; Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven, 8,200 and 8,900 acres respectively and located four miles apart near the John Day River in Central Oregon, and a proposal to protect 21.3 miles of the Molalla River under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Next month the nation will celebrate the 48th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. A fitting way to observe it would be for lawmakers from both parties to join in passing an omnibus public lands bill that reflects the nation’s long-standing tradition of working across party lines to protect the nation’s wild spaces.