WASHINGTON – The Senate is again moving forward on a stalled bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness.
Senators endorsed the bill Monday on a test vote, setting up a vote on final approval later this week. The 73-21 vote was 13 more than the 60 votes needed to go forward with the bill.
The Senate approved the measure in January, but it was defeated last week in the House amid a partisan dispute over a plan to allow concealed, loaded guns in national parks.
The legislation – a package of about 170 separate bills – would confer the government’s highest level of protection on land ranging from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range and Oregon’s Mount Hood to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would do everything in his power to stop the bill or at least slow it down. He complained that Democratic leaders had not allowed lawmakers to amend the 1,200-page bill on the Senate floor.
Coburn called the bill an “anti-stimulus” that will erect new barriers to energy exploration and squander billions of dollars on what he called parochial programs and frivolous pet projects.
Supporters disputed that, calling the measure among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in many years.
The bill would authorize one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in 25 years, blocking more than 2 million acres from development. Federal land in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections.
The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to construct a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness, the government’s highest level of protection.
Monday’s vote was largely procedural. Senators stripped out language from a related bill passed in the House and substituted the Senate wilderness language. The bill includes an amendment by Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., clarifying that it would not impose new restrictions on hunting, fishing or trapping on federal land.
The amendment, pushed by the National Rifle Association, was seen as an attempt to win backing from gun rights supporters.
By approving a previously passed House bill, lawmakers said they would be able to craft a rule in the House blocking amendments or other motions to derail the bill. Republicans used the threat of an amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks to defeat the wilderness bill last week.