The American West is no longer a beckoning blanket of land waiting to be claimed, as it was when thousands of pioneers migrated toward the new frontier in the middle of the 19th century. Arguably, every parcel of land in the United States now belongs to someone. Yet heated controversy over a bill currently working its way through the House of Representatives shows how some American land is still up for grabs.
The bill, labeled the Wilderness and Roadless Release Act of 2011, has lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and grassroots organizations out West sparring over the future of public lands like Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains and Devils Canyon in Utah. If the bill is signed into law, these lands will be subject to human-caused change. If the bill is rejected, the lands will remain untouched.
“This is really about unfettered access for developers to our last wild places,” says Paul Spitler, The Wilderness Society’s expert on the bill. But supporters like the Western Energy Alliance, an association of oil and natural gas companies based in Colorado, say that land doesn’t have to be destroyed in order to be developed. “We believe we’ve achieved a balance in the West where we develop a good amount of energy while protecting the environment,” says Kathleen Sgamma, Director of Governmental and Public Affairs for the group.
In the late 1970s, Congress required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) to study and review all federal lands in an effort to improve land management. During this inventory, pristine open spaces that could potentially be designated Wilderness were categorized as either Wilderness Study Areas (by the BLM) or Roadless Areas (by the USFS). The usage of these lands is strictly regulated until their final designation is determined. No permanent environmental disturbances are allowed.
The bill, sent to the House floor in April 2011, would remove about 90,000 square miles of land in 38 states from its current status as potential Wilderness and place it under flexible management by the BLM and USFS. The area involved is roughly the size of Minnesota. Under this new management plan, the lands could be considered for oil and gas leases, tree harvesting, motorized recreation and other activities that could impact the environment.
Most of the land designated by the bill lies out West, where some see the development of public land as an economic priority. The members of the Western Energy Alliance produce 27 percent of U.S. natural gas and 17 percent of U.S. oil on leased public lands, according to Sgamma. The members argue that it is economically essential for land to be available for different modes of development. “The wealth of a nation should not be locked away,” Sgamma says.
Sgamma disagrees with environmental groups who claim the bill creates an “open season” for developers. “That’s absolutely not true,” says Sgamma. She says the lands affected by the bill would remain bound by BLM and USFS land use planning, which requires public comment and environmental assessments before development occurs.
“The lands aren’t being released willy-nilly,” agrees Greg Mumm, executive director of the Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, an advocacy group for snowmobiling, dirt biking and other motorized recreation. Idaho holds the second-largest share of the land designated by the bill. Mumm says western land should be available to the local communities that often thrive on recreational activities forbidden in wilderness areas, like skiing or touring in all terrain vehicles. “Restrictions placed on resources have eliminated jobs and cut down work,” Mumm says. “What this bill is really doing is putting the lands back into a rightful management plan.”
Not everyone agrees on the definition of a rightful management plan, however. Some people value these lands precisely because they’re undisturbed, says Peter Nelson, Director of the Federal Lands Program at Defenders of Wildlife, which has lobbied strongly against the bill. Nelson says that his decade working for Defenders of Wildlife in western communities has taught him that each roadless area has a “constituency” with personal relationships to the landscape. “These are really the secret gems of our public lands,” Nelson says.
Ben Long, who grew up in Idaho, volunteers as co-chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a recreational organization also opposing the bill. “We’re trying to protect the land that provides so much for our families and our way of life,” he says. For Long, the pristine lands indicated in the bill are most valuable for their intangible resources. One of his favorite areas is Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. “I was just in this spot Saturday where I’ve been hunting for 17 or 18 years. You get attached to these places,” he says.
Long thinks changes to land management should be done on a case-by-case basis, not by “some fiat from D.C. doing it with one sweep of the hand.” He believes each habitat is unique.
For Mumm, on the other hand, current land regulations can be harmful to the habitats he cherishes. “In South Dakota near where I live,” he says, “there’s a place called Beaver Park that’s been managed as a roadless area, and because of a lack of management prescription, the mountain pine beetles are so bad that they’ve killed almost the entire forest.” Mumm says he’d like to see the lands released for active management, rather than have them sit in “limbo.”
The legislative process can take months, and it’s hard to know when the House and Senate will vote on the bill. But when they do, decisions about the use of provisional public lands — for hiking or for mining — will boil down to the deep-seated values of the populace and how those values are communicated to elected officials.
“This new bill is a continuation of a conversation we’ve been having for a hundred years,” Long says. “Are public lands to provide raw materials for industry or to provide clean water and wild land and places for people to peacefully enjoy?”