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We Can Still Halt Bush's Assault on Wilderness

September 03, 2004|Bob Devine | Bob Devine is the author of "Bush Versus the Environment" (Anchor Books, 2004).

The Wilderness Act was signed into law 40 years ago because Americans feared that what remained of our wild places would be paved over or plowed under if we didn't protect it. People worried that they'd no longer have wilderness in which to fish, camp, hike, canoe, hunt and savor the beauty of the great outdoors. Our species lived in the wild for eons, and even modern humans instinctively feel a profound bond with untamed landscapes.

The Bush administration, however, seems to have overcome this instinct, motivated by a desire to open public lands to logging, mining and, especially, oil and gas development. It has systematically worked to undermine the protection of wild places -- the intent behind the Wilderness Act.

The president and his appointees -- many of whom have ties to these extractive industries -- have used many stratagems to prevent additional federal lands from being protected. Consider their sustained assault on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, created under President Clinton to restrict development on 58.5 million acres of unspoiled lands in our national forests. First, the Bush administration briefly suspended the rule. It subsequently became tied up in legal challenges and still has not been implemented.

Most recently, the Bush administration proposed a regulation that essentially would supersede the roadless rule, allowing development unless a state governor intervened to stop it. Many of these roadless areas lie in Western states whose governors favor short-term economic gain for a few favored industries over sustainable development and environmental protection. Even if a governor objected to development, the proposal would allow the administration to override the request. In another attack on wilderness preservation, the administration reached all the way back to an obscure 1866 law. Intended to allow road construction across federal lands to connect towns, this obsolete law was repealed in 1976 -- except for one provision covering already established roads. In 2003, the administration announced new policies that widened that narrow exception into a gaping loophole. These policies permit attempts by states and counties to construe old wagon roads, foot paths, horse trails and even tracks created by illegal off-road vehicle traffic as "constructed highways" under the 1866 statute.

In California, for instance, San Bernardino County is trying to claim hundreds of miles of dubious routes in the Mojave National Preserve as established highways under this loophole. Once granted the right of way, states and counties can bulldoze those imaginary roads into true roads, even if they cross pristine lands. That would preclude wilderness designation on those lands and allow development.

Perhaps the biggest blow to wilderness preservation occurred in 2003 in a sweetheart settlement between the administration and the government of Utah. The deal in essence directs the Bureau of Land Management to stop looking for potential new wilderness areas to preserve and opens previously protected BLM lands to development. The settlement affects all 262 million acres managed by the BLM throughout the country, which puts millions of acres of wild lands on the auction block. Already, the oil-and-gas exploration rigs are rolling into former wild lands.

Fortunately, it's not too late to curb the Bush assault on our wilderness. A number of pending legal challenges should help. So should the surge of bipartisan citizen protest, notably the dismay expressed by Republican hunters and anglers. They believe in the old slogan "Conservation is conservative." Let's hope a passion for conserving wild places prevails among conservatives and liberals alike, as it has in the past. Otherwise the Wilderness Act's 40th-anniversary celebration may turn out to be a wake.

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