A bill that threatens certain wilderness areas has had committee hearings in the US House and hopes someday to add another jewel in the crown of corporate welfare legislation. Enough sensible heads and public outcry – even in today’s nutty political environment – should prevent that.
Millions of acres of national forests have been designated “wilderness study areas” pending congressional approval and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) while millions more acres are managed by the US Forest Service as “inventoried roadless areas,” a status created by the “Roadless Rule” in the last days of the Clinton administration. Such status restricts access and prohibits development until a decision is made by Congress to officially qualify and designate these areas as “wilderness.”
The proposed legislation, HR 1581 – Wilderness and Roadless Areas Relief Act, would remove such lands from the protection of any “wilderness” designation, allowing the development of roadways and other permanent intrusive access.
Sponsored by Kevin McCarthy (R-CA22), the bill has 33 co-sponsors, all Republicans. None are from the Florida delegation. Of the co-sponsors, 24 are from western states, unsurprising given the concentration of affected areas in western states, shown clearly on this map.
Yet the Apalachicola and Osceola National Forests would appear to be impacted, less so the Ocala National Forest. The respective wilderness areas and the different status of sections of each are visible in this map which shows the relatively small areas likely affected by HR 1581 in Florida, about 50,000 acres.
These remote areas in Florida would seem unlikely locations to make anyone’s priority. While timber interests may have interest in exploiting these Florida areas, it is likely that none of the Florida national forest wilderness areas are the true focus of this endeavor. Again, the western states have the most invested in this action, evident from the 75% of co-sponsors from western states.
The Clinton administration’s “Roadless Rule” has been vilified since its passage by thwarted mining and lumber interests. Consider this:
The Roadless Rule of 2001 is without debate the most far-reaching conservation action taken by the federal government since the Wilderness Act of 1964. The rule does not specifically protect roadless areas from development nor does it strictly prohibit multiple use activities on these lands. Specifically, the rule was aimed at controlling the amount of road-building activities undertaken by the forest service, which has more miles of roads under its control than the US Interstate Highway System.
The degree to which the US Forest Service maintains these roadways, and may be required to maintain these roadways, for the benefit and use of corporate mining and lumber interests could make the Roadless Rule of 2001 a huge obstacle to the corporate welfare dole.
HR 1581 has a long way to go before becoming enacted, and while its impact on Florida’s wondrous national forests would seem to be less than the outcomes likely in western states, the weak testimony of proponents and the broad groups of opponents suggest it won’t see positive action on the floor of the US House if it ever gets to the floor at all.
Proponents include Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, mostly dealers of ATVs and jet skis, even though many of the areas are already accessible by ATVs, just not permanent roadways. The NRA applauds the legislation for opening the tracts to hunters, even though many of the tracts are already open to hunters, and hunter groups oppose it. The committee testimony of Dan Kleen, a handicapped off-roader, touchingly but unconvincingly bemoaned the burden of being restricted from these areas. Other recreational groups stepped up as well, including the Florida Trail Riders which seems odd since they appear to be a dirt bike racing organization. HR 1581 sponsor McCarthy’s invocation of Teddy Roosevelt to validate this bill as good conservation was quite over-the-top.
On the other side, there are groups like the Montana Elk Hunting Group that see no reason for this bill and recognize a threat:
The 6.8% of Montana that is still roadless is the primary reason Montanans have the longest elk hunting seasons anywhere. Roadless areas are the primary reason big bulls and big mule deer bucks are still found on public land … [Montana Republican Congressman Denny] Rehberg’s bill is great for the rich guys who pay to hunt elk on private lands.
Earthjustice and Sierra Club are expected opponents. The Wilderness Society set up a satellite web site on HR 1581 called the “Great Outdoors Giveaway.” The most passionate witness to the need for preserving these wilderness areas came from an outdoorsman contributor to Field and Stream magazine:
For me and for so many hunters that I know, roadless public lands are the common man’s only chance to chase big game, to be free to follow up a big bull or muley buck without having a contingent of motorized recreationists roar up the ridge beside us, throttle back the engine, flip up the visor, and whisper, “hey, buddy, you seen any?” For the men and women who despise the protection of roadless lands, our concerns over wild places to hunt are absurd.
For many of these same men and women, steeped in their ideology, the whole concept of public lands is socialism, and these lands should be “divested” or sold off. Since this cannot be achieved yet, the next best thing, following the strict doctrine, is to have these lands be rampantly developed, roaded, their pristine qualities degraded, a kind of incremental, sour grapes approach…
I am saying that we don’t need politicians to wave their manicured hands and declare the debate over, and declare themselves, their ideology, and their contributors’ the winners.