A hard-won law provides the largest expansion to wilderness in 15 years.
|Rocky Mountain National Park
|National Park Service
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which President Obama signed into law on March 30, protects nearly two million acres of wilderness, a number nearing the 2.4 million acres the Bush administration designated during its entire two terms. The wilderness designation confers the government’s highest level of protection. This legislation also contains more than 160 nonpartisan bills that, in addition to designating wilderness, add national trails and classify more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states as wild and scenic—making it the largest expansion of protected land in 15 years. Here’s a look at just a few areas that now carry the official wilderness designation.
Since 1992 the Badlands desert ecosystem in central Oregon has been a Wilderness Study Area, giving its approximately 30,000 acres interim protection until Congress designated it as wilderness or released the land for other use. Now all but 1,000 acres have the permanent protection sought by the Oregon National Desert Association (ONDA) and other state organizations. “We’re really excited to see it move forward,” says Gena Goodman-Campbell, wilderness coordinator for ONDA. The designation also prohibits the use of mountain bikes and motorized vehicles in the area, a move Goodman-Campbell says will help preserve the Badlands’ six lizard species, numerous mammal varieties, and 100 types of birds, including golden eagles, prairie falcons, and sage grouse.
Sabinoso Wilderness, New Mexico
Along the Canadian River, about 100 miles east of Santa Fe, the recently minted Sabinoso Wilderness comprises more than 16,000 acres in northeast New Mexico. This is only the second wilderness designation in nearly 20 years in the state. The region has impressive canyons, including the 1,000-foot tall Largo Canyon, and is home to mountain lions, gray foxes, and coyotes. There are also various species of birds, from red-tailed hawks and savannah sparrows to broad-tailed hummingbirds and American kestrels. The Bureau of Land Management is currently working to put in trailheads to make the terrain more accessible. It is an “isolated jewel of public land” because it is one of the last untouched pieces of the Great Plains ecosystem, says Nathan Newcomer, assistant director of the non-profit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. While the area will still be available for hunting, fishing, and grazing by a few local ranchers, it will never be open to development or mining.
John Krebs Wilderness, California
Protecting the environment cost John Krebs his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. Now the former California legislator’s commitment to conservation is being recognized in a new wilderness area that spans nearly 40,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Krebs won protection for Mineral King Valley more than 30 years ago when it was included in the national park—just in the nick of time, as the Walt Disney Company was planning a large ski resort there. Today the valley, along with areas in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, will now be known as John Krebs Wilderness. The region includes many Important Birding Areas, providing habitat for more than 200 species of birds, including peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and western bluebirds.
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
The Monongahela National Forest is a large tract on West Virginia’s border with Virginia. Approximately 37,000 acres have been designated within six areas of the forest: Cranberry, Big Draft, Roaring Plains, Dolly Sods, Otter Creek, and Spice Run. Now, thanks to the new law, 13 percent of the forest’s 900,000 acres is wilderness, up from 9 percent; it’s a notable improvement but still less than the National Forest System average of about 18 percent, according to the Sierra Club. The areas will be open for hiking, fishing, hunting, and other recreation, but off-limits to logging, mining, and road building. The wilderness encompasses important watersheds, as well as habitat for black bears, grouse, red-bellied woodpeckers, and many birds of prey.
Owyhee Public Land Management, Idaho
More than 515,000 acres of the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in southwestern Idaho received wilderness designation under the new law. It’s a designation Congress has not given to land in the state for 25 years, says Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. The area is home to several rare birds, including ferruginous hawks and mountain quail, as well as scores of rare plant species. In addition, 300-plus miles of rivers are now classified as wild and scenic, preserving the waterways for recreation and science. The Owyhee Initiative, a group dedicated to safeguarding this swath of land, calls it “the best remaining habitats and the most important areas for wild recreation and scientific studies.”
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Approximately 250,000 acres in Rocky Mountain National Park, located 70 miles northwest of Denver, are now permanently protected. Despite an attempt in the 1970s by former President Nixon to protect the land, fewer than 3,000 of the park’s 265,000 acres had the wilderness designation, according to the National Park Service. The 94-year-old park provides habitat for white-tailed ptarmigans, pygmy nuthatches, and 278 other bird species, as well as for more than 65 mammal species and five kinds of amphibians. The protection excludes the Grand Ditch named after the Grand River (what’s now the Colorado River).
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