What Will Congress Achieve (Or Destroy) in Wilderness Conservation in 2012?

by Tom Kenworthy

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold, and therefore an appropriate time to reflect on wilderness, bemoan the 112th Congress’ lamentable record on land conservation, and to take a look at what the Congress may accomplish on wilderness in 2012.

Leopold, a writer (“A Sand County Almanac”), scientist, forester, and wildlife ecologist, was a huge influence on how we look at land and nature in the U.S. In the early 1920s, while employed by the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold convinced his agency to set aside by administrative action a half million acres in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico as “wilderness” –the highest form of land protection in our country. It was the first time something like this had been done before.

His working definition of wilderness — “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man” — was a model for the statutory and regulatory requirements for wilderness when Congress in 1964 enacted the Wilderness Act. The result of Leopold and his contemporaries’ efforts is the National Wilderness Preservation System, which today includes nearly 110 million acres in 44 states.


From the vantage point of 2012, when bitter partisanship infects nearly all the workings of Congress and the whole concept of wilderness is loathed by so many Republicans, it is hard to imagine the relative harmony that prevailed during consideration of the 1964 Wilderness Act. It passed the Senate 73–12 and received only one no vote in the House.

Traditionally, Republicans members of Congress have introduced, pushed, and supported wilderness legislation. But today, not even influential Republicans in Congress can get much traction on even the most modest proposed wilderness bills, perhaps because House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings has held more than 20 oversight hearings on how to drill more while holding zero on wilderness. Additionally, out of dozens of bills passed by the committee last year, not a single one was a wilderness bill.

But there are a handful of wilderness and conservation bills sponsored by Republicans that could move in the next year, if Republican leadership will allow them. Among the wilderness bills introduced by Republicans currently languishing are

  • Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA): H.R. 41, the “Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Act,” that would designate 21,000 acres of wilderness in San Diego County.
  • Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID): H.R. 163, the “Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act,” that would create 333,000 acres of new wilderness in the state’s Boulder and White Cloud mountains while also opening up about 132,000 acres now protected as wilderness study areas to other uses.
  • Rep. David Drier (R-CA): H.R. 113, the “Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act,” that would protect as wilderness about 18,000 acres in national forests near Los Angeles.
  • Rep. David Reichert (R-WA): H.R. 608, the “Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act,” that would add 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state.
  • Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI): H.R. 977, the “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act,” which would protect more than 30,000 acres along Lake Michigan.

While these members listen to their constituents’ desires for more places to recreate, some of their colleagues are attacking the very essence of wilderness and land conservation. For example, Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act” would open up 60 million acres of wilderness-quality lands to potential development. There are 38 co-sponsors of the bill, which McCarthy’s hometown newspaper editorialized would have “Teddy Roosevelt rolling over in his grave.”

In addition to complacency on even Republican wilderness bills, expect to see other attacks on conservation in 2012, including on mining around the Grand Canyon, blocking recreation access along the northern and southern borders, and more proposals to sell off public lands. It’s a legacy that Aldo Leopold — a conservative Republican — would not be proud of.

Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.