Senate clears Wilderness bill; House to act next week

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday passed a long-delayed bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, including nearly 47,000 acres in southwestern Oregon.

The 77-20 vote sends the bill to the House, where final legislative approval could come as early as next week.

The Senate first approved the measure in January, but it was defeated last week in the House amid a partisan dispute over a plan to allow concealed, loaded guns in national parks.

The measure would protect about 204,000 acres statewide, including the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and the 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, where the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains converge.

"We're getting protection for some ecologically important acreage," said Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council and a Greensprings resident.

"Wilderness gives the highest protection possible to the most diverse part of the monument," Willis said.

He said he was grateful to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and former Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, for working together to get the bill to a place where it could be approved.

The measure also includes 128,000 acres on Mount Hood, nearly 31,000 acres in the badlands just east of Bend, and 8,600 acres overlooking the John Day Wild and Scenic River.

Because of a parliamentary maneuver adopted in the Senate, the House is expected to take up the bill under a rule that blocks amendments or other motions to derail it. Republicans used the threat of an amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks to defeat the wilderness bill last week.

"I'd say the odds are good it will pass the House," Willis said.

The legislation — a package of nearly 170 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections.

Supporters called the legislation among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in decades.

"The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority," said Paul Spitler of The Wilderness Society. "These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis."

The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.

Critics have called the project a "road to nowhere." Backers say the road is needed for residents of a remote village on the Bering Sea who now use a hovercraft to reach an airport and hospital.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held up the bill's final passage last year and again this year, arguing that it was unnecessary and would block energy development on millions of acres of federal land. The bill moved forward this week after Coburn was allowed to submit six amendments for approval. Five were defeated.

A sixth provision, softening a provision to impose criminal penalties for collecting some fossilized rocks on federal land, was included in the final bill. The bill is HR 146.

Mail Tribune reporter Bill Kettler contributed to this story.

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