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National Park System Would Gain Official Wilderness Under Omnibus Lands Bill


Rocky Mountain National Park would gain nearly 250,000 acres of officially designated wilderness under an omnibus lands bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. NPS photo.

A massive lands bill introduced today by Senator Jeff Bingaman would, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, designate hundreds of thousands of acres of official wilderness across the National Park System.

If you recall, similar legislation died last month as Congress became preoccupied with the nation's financial meltdown.

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 introduced by the Democrat from New Mexico would, if enacted, permanently protect more than 2 million acres of America’s wilderness. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the measure would be voted on by the entire Senate this Sunday.

According to The Wilderness Society, this legislation would provide the greatest expansion of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 15 years, and includes 16 wilderness bills from nine states.

Among the national parks that would benefit from this legislation are:
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore[/url]

Beaver Basin Wilderness

This legislation would designate more than 11,000 acres of wilderness within the Pictured Rocks
National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. Pictured Rocks features sandstone cliffs, lovely
beaches, waterfalls, and sand dunes all with the spectacular backdrop of Lake Superior.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness and Indian Peaks Wilderness Expansion Act

Rocky Mountain National Park provides world-class hiking and climbing, and breathtaking
views of the Rocky Mountains, while also supporting the economies of several gateway
communities. This legislation would protect nearly 250,000 acres of wilderness within the
park, finally implementing a recommendation by the National Park Service made in the
early 1970s.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness Act

This bill would designate 90,000 acres of wilderness within Sequoia and Kings Canyon
national parks, and would protect the redwood Mountain Grove, which is the largest stand
of Giant Sequoia trees in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park

California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act

The legislation proposes to designate more than 190,000 acres of wilderness, including
spectacular desert landscapes in Joshua Tree National Park and the rugged slopes of the
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The bill would also designate 31 miles of Wild and
Scenic River, providing new recreation opportunities for southern California

Zion National Park

Washington County Growth and Conservation Act

This legislation would designate more than 235,000 acres of wilderness in and around Zion
National Park in southern Utah. The legislation would also establish two new national
conservation areas and would create several new wild and scenic rivers. Utah’s scenic
red rock country is a land of stark beauty renowned worldwide. This bill would preserve
important elements of this iconic landscape.


Help me out here: why is a wilderness declaration of regions within an existing national park really matter? I understand that declaring other lands as 'wilderness' affords them protection from development, road building, etc., but aren't lands within a park already protected?

I guess I'm asking why this bill is anything more than empty rhetoric in some cases, like the act "designat[ing] 90,000 acres of wilderness within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks", etc.


My travels through the National Park System:

Barky, no, it's not exactly empty rhetoric. While the areas in question have been "managed" as defacto wilderness, that's not the same as being officially designated wilderness. Which means that if someone down the road decided to build a road into or through a portion of the defacto wilderness, or put a backcountry ranger cabin there, or who-knows-what that's currently prohibited in officially designated wilderness, and somehow got NPS approval, they could.

True, it's probably a reach that anything would happen to these defacto wilderness areas, but you never know....

OK, makes sense I suppose. Thanks for that!


My travels through the National Park System:

Preoccupation with the economic crisis certainly played a role, but it was still somewhat surprising that Congress failed to pass its now seemingly standard end-of-session omnibus public lands bill. Even with the economic crisis, this probably would have still have passed but for the objections of Senator Coburn of Oklahoma. Sen. Coburn objected to a number of provisions, including the earmarking and overall price tag of some of the projects included, closing off certain Forest Service and BLM Lands to further energy exploration, and concerns regarding both the price tag of the new National Heritage Areas included and the possibility of new National Heritage Area designations interfering with private property rights.

It is interesting to note, however, that both Senator Coburn and environmental groups both objected to at least one aspect of the bill - a plan to spend to transfer land out of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Aleutian Peninsula to eventually facilitate a multi-million dollar road project to replace the existing ferry access to an airport for residents of a small town. (sound familiar? - different town, similar story.)

It may not be such a reach, Kurt. Most of the larger units have a cadre of relatively well paid employees who have a vested interest in building new infrastructure. These range from contracting officer and Trail Foreman to Landscape Architect, Chief of 'Maintenance', and beyond. Many no doubt sincerely see a need, or many needs, but some are careerists looking to fill the eye of their supervisor or congressperson. The regional offices are especially well stocked with this type.

Paul - If you've ever visited a Park that is largely wilderness, like North Cascades, and compared it to the experience of say visiting Yosemite Valley or the developed areas of Yellowstone, I think you would quickly see the difference. Wilderness designations involve making a tradeoff in favor leaving a place virtually untouched, and against further development of things like tour roads, National Park Lodges, and developed campgrounds that help make National Parks more accessible to broad segments of the American population. When a wilderness is designated, the wild splendor of the place is left almost completely untouched (for example, you can't even put trail signs up in wilderness areas) and provides an unmatched experience for those who go there. On the other hand, it does often mean that fewer people will go there, due to the lack of facilities and the more difficult access.

Limited signage is allowed in designated wilderness areas:
The Wilderness Act of 1964 and Signs

It will be interesting to see how this bill fares so early in the new session; perhaps that will provide a hint at how other park-related actions will fare.

To add to the comment by Sabattis, media reports late last year indicated that this bill didn't come up for a vote due to threats of a filibuster by Senator Coburn of Oklahoma. With other pressing business facing Congress at the end of the session, his threat was sufficient to stall the bill. One would presume he still has the same objections to this bill, and some of that same "pressing business" is still on the table, so stay tuned for developments...

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