Bill to Add 1.3 Million Acres of Wilderness Area Passes House

Feb. 12, 2020, 10:16 PM

A Democratic-backed package that would set aside 1.3 million acres of public lands in California, Colorado, and Washington state as protected wilderness areas passed the House Wednesday largely along party lines.

The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) (H.R. 2546) passed the House 231-183 after debate on more than a dozen amendments on the floor. The legislation also would add nearly 1,000 miles of U.S. rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems.

The bill faces several obstacles to becoming law, including a White House veto threat issued Monday that warned the bill could “impede future energy and mineral development, including development that is important to the economic and national security” of the U.S.

The House-passed bill also covers broader swaths of land than competing proposals in the Republican-controlled Senate that have moved through its Energy and Natural Resources Committee this Congress.

“The House has a much more expansive package,” Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told Bloomberg Law Wednesday. Wilderness measures that have passed the Senate committee also “have gone through a full process at the state level and it’s been a bipartisan effort,” said Murkowski, who suggested there would have to be further negotiations between the House and Senate on the competing wilderness proposals.

A wilderness designation means the land would get permanent protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act, under which Congress sets aside unique landscapes for hiking and other limited uses in the National Wilderness Preservation System. DeGette’s package combines six wilderness bills that recently advanced out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The House passed the bill after approving several amendments, including a DeGette amendmentthat would designate another 60,000 acres of Colorado lands as wilderness, which was adopted 229-189.

Another Democratic amendmentoffered by Rep. James Panetta (D-Calif.) to allow either the Interior secretary or the Agriculture secretary to manage lands in any of the wilderness acreage created under the bill for fire, insects, and diseases was agreed by a vote of 406-12.

Some Additional Provisions

A Republican amendment offered by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) to require the Defense Department to study how expanding wilderness designations in the West might impact aviation training for U.S. armed forces was adopted by voice vote.

Another Tipton amendment to strike any wilderness designations from being applied to his 3rd congressional district—which includes portions of western and southern Colorado—was defeated 183-234.

The House also voted down an amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) that delay any wilderness designations under the bill until the affected county formally agrees to it. It fell 181-239.

Another modest change to the bill also was approved by voice vote: an amendment by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) to encourage the Interior secretary and the Agriculture secretary to ensure U.S. service members and veterans have access to public lands.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com

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