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Battle brewing over expanding wilderness protections in the West

November 10, 2011 |  4:14 pm

San Juan Islands
The Obama administration on Thursday recommended stronger protections for federal land in nine Western states, but many of the proposals are likely to face resistance in the Republican-controlled House.

Still, one of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recommendations -- expansion of a wilderness area in northern San Diego County -- is included in a bill that has bipartisan support, boosting its prospects for clearing Congress. The bill, sponsored by unusual allies, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would add about 21,000 acres to the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia wilderness areas.

A bill by influential Republican Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas to expand a wilderness area in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County by 17,724 acres also stands a good chance of passage.

Salazar recommended 18 "special" places for protection as national conservation areas or wilderness areas, in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington state, citing "significant local support for congressional protection."

California areas recommended for protection include a wide swath of Southern California desert that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has sought to protect, and the English Ridge area, described as "a remote and rugged landscape of steep mountains covered with a mosaic of old-growth Douglas fir forests, chaparral and grasslands'' in Northern California’s Mendocino County.

Other areas recommended for protection in a report sent to Congress include Washington state’s San Juan Islands, Colorado’s Castle Peak, Montana’s Sleeping Giant and Nevada’s Pine Forest Range. Salazar recommended only broad areas for protection. Two of the areas -- New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Oregon’s Devil’s Staircase -- were the subjects of legislation that cleared a Senate committee Thursday.

Congressional Republicans have talked about opening more federal land for energy exploration or selling land to reduce the budget deficit.

But Salazar noted in a letter to Congress that the 8.7 million acres run by the Bureau of Land Management that have been designated as wilderness since 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act "play a critical role in keeping local economies healthy and active."

"Recent reports suggest that outdoor recreation and conservation efforts generate as much as $1 trillion in annual economic activity, support more than 6.4 million jobs, and provide tens of billions of dollars in local, state and federal tax revenue," he said. "These are significant contributions that can be further amplified through congressional protection of our most critical areas.’"

The reaction from Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, underscores the challenges faced by those seeking to set aside more federal land for protection.

“The federal government already owns more lands than it can afford to properly manage," Hastings said in a statement.

William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement: “The time for Congress to act is now; the future of our natural heritage cannot wait.”

The land that Dreier is seeking to set aside for protection in his Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act is managed by the Forest Service. Salazar’s report dealt with land supervised by the Bureau of Land Management.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: The San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, have been recommended for greater federal protection. Credit: Scott Holter

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