October 18, 2007

Easterners, Westerners argue over wilderness bill

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Eastern and Western members of the U.S. House clashed sharply Thursday over legislation that would designate almost 20 million acres of Western land as wilderness.

Western members angrily criticized the bill, which is sponsored by two members from the East Coast -- Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. It would give a new level of protection to lands and rivers in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

In testimony before a House Natural Resources subcommittee, Maloney said the bill would only apply to current federal lands.

"These are lands that belong to all American taxpayers," she said. "We all have a right and responsibility to protect our precious resources."

Declaring land as wilderness, the highest form of federal protection, usually bans logging, oil exploration and other development. It also generally prevents motorized access, limiting recreation on the land.

Supporters have called the wilderness bill an "ecosystem-based" plan meant to transcend political boundaries and replace natural resource jobs with others tilted toward restoration.

"Montanans don't take kindly to
people on the East Coast
telling us how to manage our lands."
- Montana Sen. Max Baucus

Western Republicans on the committee challenged Maloney and Shays, saying they shouldn't be interfering with land so far away from their own districts.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the subcommittee, called the bill "absurd" and "stunning," comparing the legislation to a Soviet-style land grab.

"The issue is the division between East and West. It's a division between urban and rural," he said. "Most people here just don't get it."

Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana testified before the committee, bringing with him several boxes of letters from constituents who had written him in opposition to the bill. He said he had heard from more than 7,000 Montanans in less than a week when he asked for comment on the legislation.

He said the legislation would ruin successful local efforts that have brought different interests together to find solutions on environmental issues.

"This is not the way folks do business in the West," he said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., also blasted the legislation, along with Deputy Forest Service Chief Joel Holtrop and Deputy Bureau of Land Management Director Henri Bisson, who both said the administration opposes the bill.

Some Westerners are supporters, including Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the subcommittee chairman, and Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she is also backing the bill, saying its consideration is long overdue. The bill has 115 co-sponsors.

"The speaker supports the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which will protect this unique and priceless ecosystem," spokesman Brendan Daly said in an e-mail.

Singer Carole King, who lives in Idaho, testified in favor of the bill, saying she has been working to pass it for 17 years.

"It is important to remember that these are national lands," she said, adding in her testimony that the "Northern Rockies ecosystem is America's Sistine Chapel."

Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, expressed doubts, echoing Rehberg's comments that local efforts have been successful.

"This bill misses the mark by a long shot," Baucus said. "Montanans don't take kindly to people on the East Coast telling us how to manage our lands."

Tester said he supports "programs that ensure that Montana's ranchers, outdoorsmen, the logging industry, and conservationists all have a seat at the table."

A Republican candidate for Montana attorney general, Tim Fox, even chimed in Thursday, saying the bill would limit access to hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities in those areas.

Members of the Wyoming delegation have also criticized the bill. Republican Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi both oppose it, as does Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin.

"It seems like every year legislators, whose districts are nowhere near Wyoming, come up with a bill telling Wyoming and other rural states how to manage our land," Enzi said. "Rural lawmakers won't stand for it and will continue to deny such efforts."