The 22,245 acre Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area in Carbon County is currently managed as Wilderness by the BLM. Sen. Barrasso (R—Wyo.), who chairs an influential subcommittee on the topic, recently expressed concerns about designating new wilderness in the west. (Photo by Matthew Copeland)

Abby Kessler, E&E reporter

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said last week that he believes Congress should take “a more balanced approach” when adding and releasing public lands.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, which he chairs, debated nine bills, including three that would designate thousands of acres of new wilderness and incorporate hundreds of miles of river segments into the country’s system.

Language in the bills also includes the transition of thousands of acres to “potential wilderness.” Changes, he said, would give agencies the authority to designate land without requiring additional authority or approval from Congress.

“This is troubling to me,” he said, adding, “it could have far-reaching impacts for the management of our forests and public lands.”

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Among the bills debated was Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) S. 1423, which would designate certain federal lands in the Los Padres National Forest in California as wilderness. It also would add wilderness acres, scenic acres and a national recreation trail.

The “Central Coast Heritage Protection Act” includes eight additions to pre-existing wilderness and an additional designation in the state, totaling about 245,000 acres. Provisions would also add about 160 miles to the nation’s rivers systems.

“S. 1423 would protect some of central California’s most scenic and spectacular lands and watersheds, and would ensure that a key part of California’s wild heritage remains intact,” the Wilderness Society said in a statement.

Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s S. 1510 would expand wilderness areas in Olympic National Forest.

The “Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2015” would designate about 126,500 acres of the Olympic National Forest as wilderness. It would also add 19 rivers and their major tributaries, for a total of 464 river miles, as wild and scenic rivers.

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In addition, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden’s S. 1699 would shift land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service as wilderness and national recreation areas.

The “Oregon Wildlands Act” would designate 56,100 acres managed by BLM as an addition to the Wild Rogue Wilderness, among other provisions.

Glenn Casamassa, associate deputy chief for the Forest Service, said the agency largely supports the bills, although specific provisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

S.1167, from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), looks to modify the boundaries of the Pole Creek, Owyhee River and North Fork Owyhee wilderness areas.

The “Owyhee Wilderness Areas Boundary Modifications Act” includes a provision to authorize the use of motorized vehicles in six wilderness areas for the use of livestock monitoring, herding and gathering.

When wilderness acres in Owhyee County were designated under BLM management in 2009, farmers and ranchers were allowed to occasionally use motorized vehicles to maintain their grazing facilities and herd livestock.

Three years after the designation, BLM revised its management policies, specifically prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles across the land. This pertained to individuals herding livestock and inspecting range developments, regardless of whether or not the activity had been occurring prior to the area’s designation.

The provision was included in the latest bill to solve a “government-made problem,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho).

Mike Pool, acting deputy director for BLM, said the agency “strongly opposes” the management changes, especially with regard to the use of motorized vehicles in the wilderness area.

He said the language “undermines the longstanding definition and spirit of wilderness” laid out in the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Risch’s S. 1777 would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to invest in facilities built for commercial recreation at Smith Gulch.

The Forest Services said it opposes the bill because it would create a “negative precedent for other commercial recreation service providers on wild and scenic rivers across the nation.”

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s S. 2383 would direct the Department of the Interior and the Air Force to enter into a memorandum of agreement to continue management of more than 625,600 acres belonging to BLM.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan said the measure would allow the deployment of large weapons for weapons purposes.

“The Air Force believes the bill’s concept of short, periodic closures is the best way to serve the public’s interest while addressing both the Air Force’s emerging operational requirements and the Department of Interior’s stewardship of these lands,” Whelan said.

The increasing size of weapons safety testing makes the expansion of land boundaries necessary, he said.

Pool said BLM agrees with certain portions of the bill, although it opposes several provisions that could prevent management of the lands.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has spoken in opposition to the measure, saying in a statement that it has “no bearing on national security, and would represent an unprecedented give-away of routes totaling nearly 6,000 miles across federal lands.”

Other bills on the agenda were:

  • S. 2018, from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), to provide the conveyance of the federal government’s revisionary interest in certain land in Glennallen, Alaska, to an Anchorage-based nonprofit.
  • S. 2223, from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), to transfer jurisdiction of approximately 200 acres of BLM-managed land to the Department of Veterans Affairs and National Cemetery Administration for inclusion in the Black Hills National Cemetery, located in South Dakota.
  • S. 2379, from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), to provide the conveyance of federal government revisionary interest in a 173-acre parcel of land called Morris K. Udall Park located in Tucson, Ariz.

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— Originally published by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E publishing for permission to republish.

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  1. Senator Barrasso says he wants a “more balanced approach”. What would that be? Transfer millions of acres to the states? Sell our national treasures to private parties?

    In comparison, the proposals listed above seem rather modest. If Senator Barrasso is concerned about the trend toward more restrictive management of federal lands (as am I), then maybe he should chastise the GOP. When the public sees the GOP continually attack our federal lands, they naturally are going to propose legislation to provide more protections. Politicians like Senator Cruz who says 2 percent federal land in Texas is too much, can thank themselves for legislation that creates more wilderness areas, national monuments and scenic rivers, all of which have restrictive uses they don’t like. If the GOP would back off on its transfer/sell rhetoric, maybe we could back to multiple use management.