An omnibus public lands bill that would, among other things, designate more than 700,000 acres of California land as wilderness has finally received approval from the Senate and will now go to the House for a vote. Though it contains a few questionable proposals, the legislation would protect badly needed wildlife habitat and recreational space, and the House should pass it.
The bill, S. 22, a holdover from last year, consists of about 160 separate proposals and would grant the highest level of federal protection to more than 2 million acres across nine states from California to West Virginia. Among the California land designated as wilderness would be about 190,000 acres in Riverside County, about 450,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra and the San Gabriel Mountains, and about 90,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks. The overall package carries a $4-billion price tag over five years.
Perhaps the most important bonus for California, though, is $88 million for the long-overdue revival of the 330-mile-long San Joaquin River, after decades of being drained to supply Central Valley farms. The legislation would restore water flows next year below Friant Dam -- located on the uppermost part of the river, northeast of Fresno -- and attempt to restore salmon runs to their historic levels by 2014.
For all its good intentions, the bill funds or allows a few troublesome projects, most notably a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for use by residents of a nearby village in case of medical emergencies, even though the government has already bought them a $9-million hovercraft for that purpose. But a revised version of the bill at least grants the Interior secretary the authority to veto the road's construction. Then there's the downright silly allocation of $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015. St. Augustine is ancient by U.S. standards, the oldest European-established city in the nation, but the expenditure for a minor anniversary of a town of 12,000 is excessive by any measure.
Despite such concerns, on balance the bill is heavy on benefit and light on waste. Wilderness areas enjoy a higher level of protection than any other public lands, shielding them from drilling, logging and residential development. Rather than piling on more pork, or even killing it outright, the House should swiftly approve the bill.