A local congressman is rolling out a wilderness bill this morning that he says would open 43 million acres to multiple uses by the public.
But environmental groups say it would open the land to exploitation by mining, drilling and timber interests and off-roaders, and will threaten wildlife.
H.R. 1581 — the Wilderness and Roadless Area Relief Act — is sponsored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and 23 other members of Congress. McCarthy is set to talk about it this morning in Bakersfield.
The legislation would change the policy on land that now is not mined, logged or used for off-roading. The land is not technically wilderness, but it is treated as such by the federal government. McCarthy’s bill would change that.
McCarthy says his legislation will increase access to public lands for all Americans.
“Public access to federal lands needs some commonsense,” McCarthy wrote in his blog.
He said that decades ago the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service declared these areas unsuitable for a wilderness designation.
Congress never acted on those recommendations, he wrote, and the federal government has been managing them “under restrictive practices similar to those reserved for wilderness.”
He said the areas need to be managed in a way that creates “more recreational and responsible resource development opportunities.”
“I believe we need to protect and preserve our natural wonders,” McCarthy wrote, “but I also believe when lands have been deemed unsuitable for wilderness they shouldn’t be kept under lock and key.”
However, Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society said the bill would “open the floodgates to unrestricted commercial activity.” He called the legislation “extreme” and “outside the mainstream.”
Much of the land in question already is used by families and individuals for fishing, hunting and other such activities, Spitler said. Commercial activities are inappropriate, he said.
The Wilderness Society says the legislation “would roll back existing protections and place at risk tens of millions more acres of wilderness-quality but unprotected National Forest and BLM public lands across the country.”
It also would threaten wildlife, environmentalists say.
“This bill threatens to kill off wide-ranging species that just cannot survive in the developed landscape,” said Tim Preso of Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting natural areas.
“We are talking about grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and bighorn sheep,” he said. “The bill would also remove protections for some of our last, best fisheries, including blue-ribbon trout streams and some of the last available spawning habitat for imperiled wild salmon.”
The 43 million acres is spread across the country, and includes desert, forests and other wilderness. Five million of the acres are in California, Spitler said.