Oct 18 2007
Democrats have been waiting 12 years for a chance to make more public lands inaccessible to the public. Now that they hold majorities in both Houses of Congress, they are positioning themselves to throw away the keys to three million acres, closing them to gas, oil and mineral exploration, as well as most recreational uses. Congressional aides say Bush would probably sign such legislation. Currently, there are about 12 wilderness designation bills pending in the House and Senate.
"It's almost like the floodgates have opened," says Myke Bybee, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. Democrats think their support of environmental issues like wilderness will give them an advantage in up-coming elections and perhaps help them retake the White House. A spokesman for the Senate Energy and Resources Committee said, "The environment has been, is and always will be a top priority for Democrats." A few Republicans are joining the Democrats wilderness binge, too. Retiring Virginia Senator John Warner, a Republican, along with Democrats Sen. Jim Webb and Rep. Rick Boucher, has introduced the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act which would place 43,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains into wilderness. The Wild Sky Wilderness Act, which would create a wilderness area 90 minutes from downtown Seattle, is most likely to pass this year. The 107,000 acres would include 15,000 previously logged acres, which proved to be the stumbling block for passage between 2003 and 2006. Former Republican Representative Richard Pombo, then Chairman of the House Resources Committee, wouldn't let it out of Committee because he didn't think those logged areas qualified as wilderness. Colorado's delegation is pushing wilderness designation for 265,770 acres of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. Two bills yet to be introduced would evict the public from several hundred thousand acres in California and Utah; a compromise with the Republican delegation has whittled about 9 million acres off environmentalists' demands to padlock the gates to 10 million acres of canyon lands. Critics remain steadfast in their opposition.
"The problem with wilderness designations is that there's no recreational access unless you can hike up there," says Greg Mumm, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition. "It's only good for one elite demographic." Independent Petroleum Association of America officials also look at the ramp-up with alarm. "It has now become part of the environmental activist's playbook to reduce access to almost all federal lands that could safely produce American energy supplies," says Dan Naatz, a vice president for the Washington, D.C. trade group. If Democrats successfully take over all branches of government in coming years, how long will it take them and their environmental buddies to close down the rest of America?
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