March 25, 2009 in Region

Congress moves to boost protected public lands

Spokesman-Review staff and wire services
 

Hiking trails through the Northwest and a wilderness area in Idaho are part of a massive public lands bill that passed the House Wednesday and will likely be signed soon by President Obama.

The Omnibus Public Lands Bill, which combined nearly 170 separate measures into a single package, established a wilderness area in Idaho’s Owyhee Canyon, and a hiking trail that extends from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.

It represents one of the largest expansions of wilderness protections in a quarter century, setting aside land in the federal government’s highest level of protection in nine states, and setting up a controversial land swap in Alaska that allows an airport access road in a remote wildlife refuge near the Bering Sea.

U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, said the Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness represented a collaboration between ranchers, public officials, community leaders and conservationists. It would protect 517,000 acres of Idaho landscape and some 315 miles of rivers.

“It will also guarantee that the ranching families who have protected this land for generations will continue on, with their grazing rights protected from ranging ORVs which will be restricted to designated roads and trails,” Minnick said.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the bill contained many proposals she’d backed as separate bills, including the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail and the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. The omnibus bill passed the Senate last week.

The Pacific Northwest Trail covers some 1,200 miles from the Continental Divide to the Pacific, crossing the Rockies, Selkirks, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades and Olympic mountains, and goes through Glacier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks.

The Ice Age Floods trail through Washington, Idaho and Oregon shows off the geology of Eastern and Central Washington formed by floods that rushed across the region as the glaciers melted.

The bill also has money to train firefighters who work on federal lands.

Environmental groups and lawmakers in both parties long have pushed for the bill, which several called landmark legislation that will strengthen the national park system, restore national forests, preserve wild and scenic rivers, protect battlefields and restore balance to the management of public lands.

“After nearly a decade during which our parks were taken for granted and our range lands were scarred by a spider-web of roads and (drilling) well pads,” the bill “represents a new dawn for America’s heritage and American values,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and other Republicans complained that the measure would lock up millions of acres of land that could be explored for energy and used for other development.

“Our nation can’t afford to shut down the creation of jobs for jobless Americans, and we can’t afford to become even more dependent on foreign sources of energy,” Hastings said. The bill “even locks up federal lands from renewable energy production, including wind and solar,” he said.

Hastings tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to allow visitors to national parks to carry concealed, loaded weapons. A federal judge last week struck down a Bush administration rule allowing loaded guns in parks and wildlife refuges.


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