Even as America’s public lands are under threat, with former national monuments now open to drilling, mining, and grazing, a handful of states are looking to protect their vulnerable wilderness with a new preservation act.
Designating more than 1.3 million acres in three states as federally-protected wilderness and adding some 1000 miles of river to the National Wild and Scenic River Systems, the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act will permanently defend those areas against logging, mining, drilling, road building, and land development, now or in the future.
The legislation, which combines six land-protection bills from Colorado, California, and Washington, was introduced by US Rep. Diana DeGette in May 2019 and passed in the House of Representatives on 12 February. The next steps are Senate approval and the president’s signature.
“It’s one of the largest wilderness protection packages Congress has considered in over a decade,” DeGette said in a speech before the vote. “The areas that this bill will protect include some of the most unique and irreplaceable landscapes that our nation has to offer, from the winding canyons of Colorado to the native grasslands of California to the mossy forests of Washington State.”
The bill covers 660,000 acres in Colorado, including Handies Peak and Dolores River Canyon; 312,500 acres in Northwest California, expanding nine existing wilderness areas, establishing eight new ones; 287,500 acres in Central California, potentially creating two new wilderness areas and two new scenic areas in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument, plus a 400-mile hiking trail connecting the wilderness areas in Los Padres; 30,700 acres in Southern California, expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, establishing a new National Recreation Area, and declaring approximately 30,659 acres as wilderness; 191,000 acres in Southern California, adding 191,000 acres of the Rim of the Valley Corridor to expand the existing Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area; and 131,900 acres in Washington State, designating 126,544 acres on the Olympic Peninsula as wilderness and another 5346 as potential wilderness, the first new wilderness designation in Olympic National Forest in almost 30 years.
“Preservation of the open space in our communities is not only good for our environment, wildlife, and ecosystems, but it is beneficial for the health and wellbeing of residents of all ages,” said Rep. Adam Schiff in a press release. Schiff first introduced the Southern California bill, The Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act, in 2017. “The Rim of the Valley corridor is an area of striking and breathtaking natural beauty, and we must do whatever we can to preserve that beauty for the benefit of LA residents, the millions each year who visit, and for generations to come.”
“This legislation is a monumental move to protect our environment and fight the climate crisis. Preserving our public lands and waters – keeping fossil fuels in the ground and permanently protecting these places – will help halt and reverse climate pollution,” Athan Manuel, director of land policy at the Sierra Club, said in a statement ahead of the vote. “These protections will provide immeasurable benefits to our communities, climate stability, and for generations to come.”