U.S. Senate boosts wilderness protection across nation

Washington (AP) — In a rare Sunday session, the Senate advanced
legislation that would set aside more than 2 million acres in nine
states as wilderness. Majority Democrats assembled more than enough
votes to overcome GOP stalling tactics in an early showdown for the
new Congress.

In Wyoming, the bill would limit further oil and gas leasing in
the Wyoming Range. It would also protect 387 miles of rivers and
streams in Snake River headwaters under the federal Wild and Scenic
Rivers Act.

Republicans complained that Democrats did not allow amendments
on the massive bill, which calls for the largest expansion of
wilderness protection in 25 years. But Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats said the bill – a holdover from
last year – was carefully written and included measures sponsored
by both Republicans and Democrats.

By a 66-12 vote, with only 59 needed to limit debate, lawmakers
agreed to clear away procedural hurdles despite partisan wrangling
that had threatened pledges by leaders to work cooperatively as the
new Obama administration takes office. Senate approval is expected
later this week. Supporters hope the House will follow suit.

“Today is a great day for America’s public lands,” said the
bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. “This big, bipartisan
package of bills represents years of work by senators from many
states, and both parties, in cooperation with local communities, to
enhance places that make America so special.”

The measure – actually a collection of about 160 bills – would
confer the government’s highest level of protection on land ranging
from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range to Oregon’s Mount
Hood, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the
Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Land in Idaho’s Owyhee
canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion
National Park in Utah also would be designated as wilderness.

Besides new wilderness designations, the bill would designate
the childhood home of former President Bill Clinton in Hope, Ark.,
as a national historic site and expand protections for dozens of
national parks, rivers and water resources.

Supporters of protecting the Wyoming Range, on the state’s
far-western flank, said they were happy with the vote.

Tom Reed, spokesmen for Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range, said
Sunday that the vote was a good sign and a ratification of the hard
work supporters had put into protecting the area. Former Sen. Craig
Thomas, R-Wyo., had supported protections for the area before his
death in 2007.

“The fact that the vote was 66 to 12 bodes well for our chances
when it comes to a final vote,” Reed said. “I think it’s also sort
of validation of things that Craig Thomas stood for, which was
balance in terms of energy production and hunting and fishing
values.”

Reed said protecting the Wyoming Range would be a “real
validation of the Wyoming way of looking at things: we can pitch in
and do more than our fair share of energy production for this
country, but we also want to save something for our kids.”

Tom Patricelli, executive director of the Campaign for the Snake
Headwaters, credited Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., for helping the
Snake River portion portion of the bill through the Senate.

“This was a critical test for this legislation which is so
important for Wyoming’s small businesses, our outfitters, our
tourism-based economy, and our natural resources,” Patricelli said.
“This legislation protects Wyoming’s special places while giving a
much-needed boost to our economy in these uncertain times.”

Senate Majority Leader Reid said about half the bills in the
lands package were sponsored by Republicans. Most had been
considered for more than a year.

“I am happy that after months of delay we will finally be moving
forward,” Reid said.

The bill’s chief opponent, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., denounced
what he called Democratic bullying tactics.

“I am disappointed the Senate majority leader has refused to
allow senators the opportunity to improve, amend or eliminate any
of the questionable provisions in his omnibus lands bill,” Coburn
told fellow senators.

“When the American people asked Congress to set a new tone, I
don’t believe refusing to listen to the concerns of others was what
they had in mind,” Coburn said. “The American people expect us hold
open, civil and thorough debates on costly legislation, not ram
through 1,300-page bills when few are watching.”

Coburn and several other Republicans complained that bill was
loaded with pet projects and prevented development of oil and gas
on federal lands, which they said would deepen the nation’s
dependence on foreign oil.

Environmental groups said the bill set the right tone for the
new Congress.

“By voting to protect mountains and pristine wildlands, Congress
is starting out on the right foot,” said Christy Goldfuss of
Environment America, an advocacy group. “This Congress is serious
about protecting the environment and the outstanding lands that
Americans treasure.”

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