Not only did the 112th Congress fail to pass any legislation creating additional wilderness in the National Park System, but it turns out the body actually cut some official wilderness out of the system.
How did it accomplish such a disappointing deed? It apparently all comes down to one individual, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on national parks and other public lands and who takes a dim view of federal land ownership.
There was an effort to increase the wilderness footprint in the park system by Rep. Sam Farr, the California Democrat who proposed the legislation to rename Pinnacles National Monument as Pinnacles National Park. That legislation is awaiting President Obama's signature, but it lacks a provision to increase the wilderness footprint in Pinnacles by nearly 3,000 acres.
Rep. Farr's original proposal not only called for redesignating the monument as a park, but also called for the expansion of the Pinnacles Wilderness by 2,905 acres. And he called for the name of the wilderness to be changed to the Hain Wilderness after Schuler Hain, an early 20th century proponent of Pinnacles National Monument.
Unfortunately, by the time Rep. Farr's legislation left the Congress for the White House, the section to expand the wilderness area by 2,905 acres had been cast adrift. Rep. Bishop sliced it away during committee work on the original measure.
"Bishop let Congressman Sam Farr know that his bill to rename Pinnacles as a national park would go nowhere if it contained any designation of additional park land as wilderness. Faced with that choice, Farr acceded," says Frank Buono, a former National Park Service manager who monitors congressional action on public lands matters. "Thus, the Pinnacles bill is essentially a 'nothing-burger' – a harmless name change with not a scintilla of protective significance."
As for the point that the 112th Congress actually decreased the amount of official wilderness in the park system, the first time Mr. Buono could ever find that happening, that stemmed from now-retired Rep. Norm Dicks' efforts to engineer a land swap at Olympic National Park to move some Quileute tribal lands out of a tsunami zone.
Most of the Quileute Reservation village of La Push "is located within the coastal flood plain, with the tribe’s administrative buildings, school, elder center, and housing all located in a tsunami zone," according to the former congressman.
Under the original legislation Mr. Dicks wrote with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, 785 acres of park land near La Push would be given to the tribe, while 15 acres of the Boulder Creek Trail and campground in Olympic National Park would be designated as wilderness, and about 4,100 acres north of Lake Crescent would also be designated as wilderness.
Now, 222 of the 785 acres that eventually was transferred to the Quileute Tribe had been official wilderness since 1998, but the legislation signed into law last February was devoid of any offset for that loss, and devoid of the wording that would have provided an additional 4,115 acres of wilderness courtesy of Rep. Bishop.
"Norm Dicks wanted to replace the park wilderness that would be lost in the land transfer to the Quileute. Bishop would not accede to the congressman who represented the district, and who, in his last term, was capping a decades-long career," said Mr. Buono. "Norm Dicks, a mild, thoughtful and moderate man, was put in the position of dropping the no-net-loss provision or seeing his bill to transfer land to the tribe die at Bishop’s hands."
The Traveler has reached out to Rep. Bishop's office for the reasoning behind his amendments against wilderness designation in each of these cases and will update this story if he responds.
The handling of the Olympic land transfer appeared particularly hypocritical to the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee. The GOP majority often has said no wilderness should be designated without local input, and yet when that input is received and is positive, the majority ignores it, the Democrats said. Furthermore, they noted, the GOP went along with a "no-net-loss" of wilderness provision in legislation sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington state who chairs the full committee, in connection with a wilderness boundary change in North Cascades National Park, but removed a similar provision in Rep. Dicks' legislation.
As introduced, H.R. 1162 was the product of decades-long negotiations and represented a workable compromise between stakeholders. As part of that compromise, the legislation as introduced sought to balance the loss of park wilderness through the addition of new wilderness in another area. Through this compromise, the needs of the Tribe would have been well-served and the loss of wilderness and NPS land would have been mitigated.
Despite a hearing record free of any evidence of controversy regarding this legislation, the Majority felt compelled to adopt an amendment striking the new wilderness designation from the legislation. Further, the majority voted down an amendment offered by Subcommittee Ranking Member (Raul) Grijalva to at least protect Olympic from a net loss of wilderness. These votes are unjustified; they are based on narrow, ideological objections to wilderness, even within National Parks and even with strong, local support.
During the same business meeting, the Committee approved legislation sponsored by Chairman (Doc) Hastings (H.R. 2352) containing the ‘‘no-net-loss-of wilderness’’ protection for North Cascades National Park, also in Washington State, but apparently the Majority feels no need for consistency on this issue.