Historic Public Lands Package before Congress

As the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act draws to a close, congress members have hammered out a bipartisan bill packaging 57 nationwide public lands bills with a “must-pass” Defense Appropriations Act, already passed by the House. Proposals that have languished for years in a divided congress now await final vote in the Senate.

Braided River project regions the Crown of the Continent, the North Cascades, and the Tongass National Forest would all see new acres protected, but this compromise bill includes new development proposals and the potential loss of 70,000 acres of forest, some old-growth, in the Tongass.

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Photo by Steven Gnam from Crown of the Continent.

In the Crown of the Continent region, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act would permanently protect the American side of the North Fork of the Flathead River Watershed by barring future mining or drilling on the affected 430,000 acres which lie adjacent to Glacier National Park. 

“This legislation is tremendously important,” said Michael Jamison, NPCA’s Glacier Program Manager and contributor to Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies. “By ensuring that the North Fork valley is not industrialized, this bill safeguards both our wild inheritance and our region’s economy. It guarantees a future for traditional timber harvest, and it defends our outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing. It protects private property rights, and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a single dime.”
 
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would designate 208,000 acres as a Conservation Management Area, which protects access for hunters and anglers, and adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The bill, which is the result of a coalition of ranchers, hunters, business owners, weeds experts, and conservationists, also releases 14,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas and requires a new assessment of oil and gas potential in other Wilderness Study Areas.
 
In the North Cascades, proposals would add more than 22,000 acres of low-elevation forest land to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, designate nearly 40 miles of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic Rivers, and designate 14 miles of Illabot Creek as a Wild and Scenic River. It would also allow the Park Service to rebuild the Stehekin Valley Road, a controversial proposal within the environmental community.
 
The Tongass National Forest would see a major compromise for conservationists. About 70,000 acres of old-growth forest would be transferred to Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation, settling the longstanding debt owed to southeast tribes under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The bill would also put 150,000 acres of Tongass old-growth in new conservation areas.
 

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Photo by Amy Gulick from Salmon in the Trees.

"It is never a good day when we lose thousands of acres of valuable Tongass old-growth," said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director of the Alaska Wilderness League, a Braided River partner, "Decades of clear-cutting have already led to the decimation of much of the old-growth in the Tongass and have greatly increased the expanse of degraded wildlife habitat, however, we are heartened by the inclusion of more than 150,000 acres of conservation that is included in this legislation. Alaska Wilderness League will continue to focus on protecting the old-growth trees and thousands of miles of pristine streams, rivers and lakes within the Tongass that support fishing, tourism and recreation, which are southeast Alaska’s sustainable industries.”
 
Finally, grazing permit changes may also have a negative impact on Sage Grouse. Permits of public lands would be extended from 10 to 20 years, and permit renewals could begin before Environmental Impact Statements are complete.
 
Although the defense act is considered “must-pass” by many politicians, passage of the lands package is not yet assured, and it's possible the Senate could change some provisions. Visit www.wildestrockies.org to learn more about the Crown of the Continent, www.wildnearby.org to learn more about the North Cascades, and www.salmoninthetrees.org to learn more about the Tongass.