Yesterday brought great news from Congress – the best in a long time when it comes to the environment. The “Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009,” passed with strong bipartisan support, designates 86 new Wild and Scenic Rivers and protects over two million acres of public land with new Wilderness designations.
I’m on the national board of both American Rivers and Earthjustice, and both organizations played critical roles in the protection of the wild places covered by this legislation and in its ultimate passage.
From yesterday’s American Rivers press release:
Washington, DC -- The second largest Wild and Scenic Rivers package in history now heads to President Obama’s desk, after passing the House of Representatives today by a vote of 285-140. The bipartisan H.R. 146, the legislative vehicle for the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, will safeguard over 1,100 miles of rivers in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, California, and Massachusetts. The legislation includes important protections for 350,000 acres of land along 86 new Wild and Scenic Rivers and it also contains new Wilderness designations for over two million acres of public land. Last week the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 77-20. “Passage of this bill is an expression of the home grown support for one of the largest environmental protection measures in decades,” said Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers. “Today congressional leaders established a legacy of clean water, outdoor recreation and the economic benefits of healthy rivers and wild places for our grandchildren.” American Rivers is extremely grateful to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Chairman Jeff Bingaman, Chairman Nick Rahall, and all the sponsors of the Wild and Scenic Rivers provisions. Without their determination to see this legislation through we could not have protected these national treasures for future generations of Americans. A Wild and Scenic River designation protects riverside land along both sides of a river corridor, blocks dams and other harmful water projects, and preserves a river's free-flowing nature. It helps protect and improve clean water, as well as the river's unique historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, and recreational values. The law was enacted in 1968 and three years ago American Rivers set the goal of designating 40 new Wild and Scenic Rivers by the 40th anniversary of the law. With passage of this package we more than double our goal by designating 86 new Wild and Scenic Rivers. “From the Snake River headwaters in Wyoming to the desert Southwest’s Fossil Creek, to the trout streams of the Rockies, and the popular fishing and paddling streams of the Pacific Northwest, local people—hikers, boaters, hunters and anglers—pushed for these historic protections,” said Wodder. “These rivers are the lifeblood of the land and our communities and the Wild and Scenic River designations are a tremendous gift to future generations.”Read the press release for a full listing of the protected areas.
American Rivers was founded in 1973 with the specific mission of increasing the number of rivers protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. (Over the years our mission has broadened substantially to address a wide variety of issues affecting people and rivers.) As noted in the press release, last year marked the 40th anniversary of passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and to commemorate that anniversary, we undertook a “40x40” campaign to secure 40 new Wild and Scenic Rivers designations. We missed our self-imposed 2008 deadline by three months, but we more than doubled the number of designations. It was worth the extra time.
To give you an idea of some of what is being protected, check out the Snake River headwaters:
My personal favorite among the new designations is the Owyhee River – spectacular canyon lands along the Idaho/Oregon border.
Earthjustice (which started out as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) is the premier non-profit environmental law firm in the country. Among the newly designated Wilderness areas is Mineral King, which has particular historical significance to Earthjustice. From yesterday’s press release:
Mineral King -- the Sierra "birthplace" of Earthjustice and of environmental law -- is one of many wild places across the nation that were granted wilderness status on March 25 by Congress, freeing them from the threat of degradation by development. After years of work and a recent false start, the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 passed through the House of Representatives. It already passed the Senate, and is expected to be signed into law by President Obama. The new designation will permanently protect more than 2 million acres of America's wilderness in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia. Two expanses of wild lands protected by the legislation, including Mineral King andThe bill also protects 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range, the largest tract of roadless land in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Bush-Cheney administration wanted to open it up to massive oil and gas development, which Earthjustice helped to stop. (Hunting, fishing, recreation, and associated travel – sustainable use of the land – will bring in more money to the state than the oil and gas development.) Earthjustice also helped the legislation over the final humps in the face of much last minute maneuvering by opponents.
the Wyoming Range, are still in their natural state because of vigorous past efforts by Earthjustice attorneys. Of those, Mineral King has special significance for Earthjustice. Tucked away in the Southern Sierra, Mineral King Valley is a subalpine jewel that attracted the attention of Walt Disney Corporation in the 1960's. Disney had visions of building a world-class ski resort in Mineral King to rival Sun Valley in size and provide recreational opportunities to people living in Southern California. The Sierra Club was less than enthusiastic. Mineral King was surrounded on three sides by Sequoia National Park, and would have been included in the park save for some abandoned mine shafts left by miners when the ore played out two decades before the park was created. … The club appealed to the Forest Service and the Park Service to deny the resort its permits, to no avail. The only recourse left was federal court. This was a near novelty -- most courts required potential plaintiffs to demonstrate a financial interest in a matter they wished to ask the court to rule on. But the club insisted that the interest of its members in the recreational possibilities offered by Mineral King, plus its general mission of protecting places like Mineral King, should allow it to bring a lawsuit and ask for relief. Judge William Sweigert, of the district court in San Francisco, agreed and blocked the project. The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court ruled that the Sierra Club had no right to bring the case -- it lacked "standing to sue." The club then appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled against the club but, in a famous footnote, said the club was free to return to the district court and refile the case with an extensive explanation of how the interests of itself and its members would be harmed by the resort. The club did so, and Judge Sweigert reimposed the injunction. Disney, tiring of the bad publicity the case had generated, walked away. A few years later Mineral King was added to Sequoia National Park. Now, with its addition to the National Wilderness Protection System, Mineral King will be protected in perpetuity.
Yesterday was a great day for future generations of Americans (and other species). If that makes you happy, maybe give some props to American Rivers and Earthjustice (these are tough times for non-profits – which I guess would include just about all of us these days).
[For those of you in Seattle, American Rivers is having its annual Northwest dinner and auction on April 23rd at a very cool venue, Herban Feast at Sodo Park. It’s $125/head. It is always a fun event. This year it will feature climate expert Dr. Lara Hansen. American Rivers president Rebecca Wodder will also be joining us. If you are interested, contact me for more details.]