Wilderness Within Reach. Supporting the National Landscape Conservation System – November 27

New York Times Editorial
November 27, 2008

Wilderness Within Reach

It looks increasingly likely that both the Senate and the House will return to Washington after the election to address the economy and, possibly, to pass a new stimulus bill. If they do, we urge them to find time for one other piece of business — a public lands bill that, at modest expense, could add nearly two million acres to the nation’s store of permanently protected wilderness.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has promised to consider the bill. A similar commitment is now required from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose home state of California stands to benefit greatly.

The bill consists of more than 140 separate public land proposals, including 15 wilderness measures that would forever protect wild lands in eight states — including 517,000 acres in Idaho’s Canyonlands, 470,000 acres in California’s Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains, and 11,700 acres of Lake Superior shoreline in northern Michigan.

Wilderness areas are more strictly protected from commercial activities than any other public lands, including national parks. And all of these would be welcome additions to a wilderness system that now covers about 107 million acres.

One novel feature of the bill is a provision aimed at raising the environmental consciousness of the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the bulk of the country’s public lands for often contrary purposes, including conservation and oil and gas drilling.

The bill identifies 26 million acres of public lands and 850 sites of special natural, archeological and cultural value — including a dozen or so national monuments — and entrusts the bureau with restoring and protecting them for future generations.

The omnibus package is a bipartisan proposal and the product of years of negotiations among federal, state and local officials, conservation groups and private citizens. President Bush has indicated that he would sign it. Its only real enemy is time. Failure to approve it this year would require many of the negotiations to start all over again. Congress should not miss this chance.