Wednesday, 01 June 2011 19:50

Protect wilderness before legislation makes it too late

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When Congress passed the Wilderness Act back in 1964, it immediately became one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation in United States history. Worked on for years, with bi-partisan support, the act protected nine million of acres of public land forever from logging, road building, oil and gas leasing, and other forms of development. Importantly, the act protected all the rights of all Americans to hunt, fish, camp, horseback ride, and hike in these areas — forever. Since that time over 100 million acres have been protected with the Wilderness Act, ranging from Alaska to Florida, and millions more remain in need of such protection.  

Yet Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has proposed legislation that would roll back existing protections for tens of millions of acres of unprotected wilderness-quality public lands and national forests across America. If passed, this legislation would open up some of our nation’s most fragile natural landscapes to oil and gas development, road construction, uncontrolled off-road vehicle use, and other unchecked development.

Interestingly, two Republicans in his own state have introduced Wilderness Bills in the current Congress that the legislation would seek to undermine. H.R. 1581, the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act,” would undermine decades of land protection in one fell swoop. The legislation would be more aptly named the “Wilderness Elimination Act” because, if it is signed into law, tens of millions of acres of America’s wild lands could be forever lost. Here’s what the legislation would do to America’s scenic treasures: roll back protections for nearly 60 million acres of unroaded national forests

In 2001, the Forest Service finalized a policy that protects nearly 60 million acres of roadless national forest lands by prohibiting road-building and commercial logging on those lands. The policy was the result of years of public outreach, including 600 local public hearings, and remains one of the most popular environmental initiatives ever. The “Wilderness Elimination Act” would overturn this policy and open up these unroaded national forest lands to road building, commercial logging, and other development.   The act also has language to release Wilderness Study Areas.  

Western North Carolina has 1.1 million acres of national forest land, with 178,000 acres of this inventoried as roadless and currently protected under the roadless policy. These are some of the best conservation lands we have left in this part of the state, and 27,500 acres of these roadless lands are Wilderness Study Areas, so designated in 1984 when North Carolina’s had its last Wilderness bill.

Close to home, the 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area near Highlands would be a victim of HR 1581. Overflow was designated a Wilderness Study Area in 1984 when North Carolina had its last wilderness bill. Since that time it has been protected from logging and development, and Congressman Shuler (D-Waynesville) has committed to protecting the area permanently if the Macon County commissioners will pass a resolution in support. Yet passage of H.R. 1581 will reverse this designation and place the area back in the timber base.    

The time has come for us to act on Overflow, for the sooner we get legislation introduced to protect it, the less we will have to worry about such legislation as HR 1581 seeking to destroy it. I have heard comments over the last year from commissioners and members of the public that they would be the first in line to stop Overflow from being logged, but yet they would not support Wilderness. The fear seems to be that someone would lose something with such a designation. But legislation to protect Oveflow would guarantee that it remains open to hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking in its current state – and forever.   The Wilderness Act guarantees it.  

Please write Congressman Shuler and ask that he vote against HR 1581 and let him know you support protecting places like Overflow. Time could be running out.

(Brent Martin is the Southern Appalachian Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. His office is in Sylva and he can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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