Congress Likes Wildnerness

In a rare Sunday session, the Senate advanced legislation that would set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as wilderness. Majority Democrats assembled more than enough votes to overcome GOP stalling tactics in an early showdown for the new Congress.

In Wyoming, the bill would limit further oil and gas leasing in the Wyoming Range. It would also protect 387 miles of rivers and streams in Snake River headwaters under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Republicans complained that Democrats did not allow amendments on the massive bill, which calls for the largest expansion of wilderness protection in 25 years. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats said the bill — a holdover from last year — was carefully written and included measures sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats.

By a 66-12 vote, with only 59 needed to limit debate, lawmakers agreed to clear away procedural hurdles despite partisan wrangling that had threatened pledges by leaders to work cooperatively as the new Obama administration takes office. Senate approval is expected later this week. Supporters hope the House will follow suit.

"Today is a great day for America's public lands," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "This big, bipartisan package of bills represents years of work by senators from many states, and both parties, in cooperation with local communities, to enhance places that make America so special."

The measure — actually a collection of about 160 bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range to Oregon's Mount Hood, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would be designated as wilderness.

Besides new wilderness designations, the bill would designate the childhood home of former President Bill Clinton in Hope, Ark., as a national historic site and expand protections for dozens of national parks, rivers and water resources.

Supporters of protecting the Wyoming Range, on the state's far-western flank, said they were happy with the vote.

Tom Reed, spokesmen for Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range, said Sunday that the vote was a good sign and a ratification of the hard work supporters had put into protecting the area. Former Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., had supported protections for the area before his death in 2007.

"The fact that the vote was 66 to 12 bodes well for our chances when it comes to a final vote," Reed said. "I think it's also sort of validation of things that Craig Thomas stood for, which was balance in terms of energy production and hunting and fishing values."

Reed said protecting the Wyoming Range would be a "real validation of the Wyoming way of looking at things: we can pitch in and do more than our fair share of energy production for this country, but we also want to save something for our kids."

Tom Patricelli, executive director of the Campaign for the Snake Headwaters, credited Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., for helping the Snake River portion portion of the bill through the Senate.

"This was a critical test for this legislation which is so important for Wyoming's small businesses, our outfitters, our tourism-based economy, and our natural resources," Patricelli said. "This legislation protects Wyoming's special places while giving a much-needed boost to our economy in these uncertain times."

Senate Majority Leader Reid said about half the bills in the lands package were sponsored by Republicans. Most had been considered for more than a year.

"I am happy that after months of delay we will finally be moving forward," Reid said.

The bill's chief opponent, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., denounced what he called Democratic bullying tactics.

"I am disappointed the Senate majority leader has refused to allow senators the opportunity to improve, amend or eliminate any of the questionable provisions in his omnibus lands bill," Coburn told fellow senators.

"When the American people asked Congress to set a new tone, I don't believe refusing to listen to the concerns of others was what they had in mind," Coburn said. "The American people expect us hold open, civil and thorough debates on costly legislation, not ram through 1,300-page bills when few are watching."

Coburn and several other Republicans complained that bill was loaded with pet projects and prevented development of oil and gas on federal lands, which they said would deepen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Environmental groups said the bill set the right tone for the new Congress.

"By voting to protect mountains and pristine wildlands, Congress is starting out on the right foot," said Christy Goldfuss of Environment America, an advocacy group. "This Congress is serious about protecting the environment and the outstanding lands that Americans treasure."

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