Thursday, December 04, 2014

Op-ed: Nevada wilderness bill is wilderness in name only

Weak, bad political deals jeopardize Wovoka Wilderness.
from High Country News, by Kevin Proescholdt

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate is set to take up a deeply flawed Nevada wilderness bill in the lame-duck session. If passed, it would set terrible precedents for all future wilderness bills.

The bill, HR 5205, introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., bundles together seven separate Nevada lands bills, and after being amended by the House Natural Resources Committee, includes “special provisions” never before passed in any previous wilderness bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote or co-sponsored two of the separate Senate bills now in the House package, and he may likely try to pass HR 5205 through the Senate while the Senate remains under Democratic control.

Here’s why the bill deserves to go down: Its special provisions weaken the protection and management for the new Nevada wilderness beyond what the already-compromised 1964 Wilderness Act would allow. For example, bulldozers or backhoes would be allowed to build massive concrete water containment structures in wilderness -- so-called “guzzlers” -- to artificially boost wildlife populations beyond what the habitat would otherwise provide. Unlike in every other wilderness, where motor vehicles are prohibited, these manmade guzzlers would likely be serviced in perpetuity by water trucks.

It is true that special provisions are usually supposed to deal only with the wilderness being designated by that particular bill, but the history of wilderness bills shows that such special provisions are often replicated and expanded in subsequent wilderness legislation. Therefore they tend to lead to a corrosion of standards for the entire National Wilderness Preservation System, weakening the very definition of wilderness.

But Nevada’s proposed law contains even worse provisions than the guzzler language; the House bill includes three precedent-setting provisions that have never before been passed Congress in any wilderness bill. These provisions are:

• Motor Vehicle Access for Hunting. HR 5205 would allow anyone claiming any kind of disability the right to drive trucks or motor vehicles into the wilderness for hunting or fishing. This would be a precedent-setting allowance. A similar provision helped sink the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act two years ago, but the House resurrected this terrible precedent in HR 5205.

• Logging for Wildfire Pre-Suppression. The House bill would allow logging roads, logging operations using trucks and heavy equipment, and the clearing of permanent fuel breaks in wilderness for any place that any local, state or federal agency might fear would burn some day. The logging provisions are bad enough, but the ceding of wilderness administration authority from the federal land management agency to a local or state agency is probably worse, and it is something that has never been done before.

• Livestock Grazing. HR 5205 declares that livestock grazing is compatible with wilderness. In one of the many special provision compromises embedded in the 1964 Wilderness Act, the law allowed livestock grazing in some wilderness areas under certain conditions, in places where it had previously existed. But it also treated livestock grazing in general as an incompatible, non-conforming use, subject to management and control by the federal wilderness-administering agency. The House language would turn the past half-century of policy upside-down, declaring livestock grazing as something to be encouraged in wilderness rather than discouraged, and it could open more of the wilderness system to its impacts, even in places where grazing has not previously occurred.

We certainly need to designate more wilderness areas in the West, and I hope we can so designate the 26,000-acre Pine Range Forest Wilderness and the 47,449-acre Wovoka Wilderness Range, but with this caveat: We need clean bills that don’t contain the weakening special provisions and that don’t set destructive precedents.

In this 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, it would be tragic if the corrosive provisions of HR 5205 were to pass into law and erode the standards of the magnificent National Wilderness Preservation System. Though the House of Representatives has already passed this unfortunate bill, let’s hope the U.S. Senate shows more respect for, and greater understanding of, our wilderness heritage and keeps these precedent-setting special provisions from becoming law.

Kevin Proescholdt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national nonprofit.

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