Our View

Monday, Apr 18 2011 11:00 PM

OUR VIEW: Don't tear down efforts to protect US wilderness

By The Bakersfield Californian

The rumbling sound you may have noticed coming from the general vicinity of the Sierra Nevada is Teddy Roosevelt rolling over in his grave.

The great war hero, outdoorsman and early 20th-century president would not have been pleased to see his Republican Party heirs tearing away at his single greatest legacy: Recognition that this nation's natural landscape -- especially in the West -- is a vulnerable treasure that demands more than our mere appreciation. It demands protection.

Members of the House of Representatives' majority party must have missed class that week -- or at least their history and earth sciences classes -- because they've moved to strip existing protections and, perhaps worse, bar future efforts to set aside worthy, sensitive areas from commercial development and exploitation.

Leading the charge is our own Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who has introduced a bill, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, that would rescind the Clinton-era rule that protects 60 million acres of Forest Service land, most of it roadless and inaccessible. His bill would allow a broad range of uses.

Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society calls McCarthy's bill the "greatest attack on wilderness in the history of the Wilderness Society."

That would probably be true if the bill had a chance of becoming law. Its prospects in Congress are probably good, but it won't pass in the Senate and wouldn't make it past the president's desk in any case. But the bill signifies something almost as disconcerting: Full-on contempt for the idea that the West is a special place worthy of special treatment. And this isn't a back-bench catcall -- this is the House Republican leadership, signaling clear hostility to wilderness designations, both past and future.

McCarthy's bill calls for removal of existing legislative protections from millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management "wilderness study areas." It also stipulates the removal of existing protections on millions of acres of roadless national forest land by negating the 10-year-old policy protecting those areas, and it repeals certain BLM policies dealing with wilderness areas in the development of land-use plans.

Perhaps most alarming, the bill essentially declares, "OK, that's enough wilderness." By prohibiting future administrations from protecting wilderness-caliber lands with special designations, the bill essentially closes the door on any further land-use changes relative to wilderness protection -- except to move them out of protected status.

We recognize the need for mining, oil development and other resource extraction activities on federal lands, and we understand the attraction of motorized recreation far from the glare of civilization. But this wholesale reversal of wilderness protection policy -- which, we must add, has enjoyed broad public support -- is a serious overstep.

As the man whose visage is chiseled into Mount Rushmore once said of the West's great, wild lands, "... our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred."

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