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Comprehensive Wilderness Legislation Needed

The last four years have been a nightmare for our public lands, our waters, our wildlife, tribal sacred sites and climate policy. From the Mexican border to the Arctic shores, the Trump Administration, its Congressional sycophants, and corporate funders have done everything possible to undermine our nation’s bedrock environmental and public health laws.

Now that the Democrats have control of the White House and both houses of Congress (admittedly with a razor-thin majority in the Senate) we have a unique opportunity to not only reverse the environmental damage of the Trump years, but to ensure that many of these threats are removed from a future, criminal, corporate-driven administration.

The 1964 Wilderness Act is one of our nation’s most powerful conservation laws. The act protects vital landscapes and ecosystems within our public lands system. It ensures that those lands are permanently protected from development and exploitation. To become law, a Wilderness bill must pass through both houses of Congress and be signed by the President. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to un-designate a Wilderness area. The Wilderness Act not only protects lands and wildlife but also water resources for our communities and farms, our soils, pollinators, hunting and hiking opportunities, and clean air.

This year, Congress must pass a massive, nation-wide Wilderness bill covering hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in order to head off future threats.

Among areas that must receive Wilderness designation are all Wilderness Study Areas and most of the public land considered “roadless” – particularly those adjacent to existing Wilderness areas. In addition, Congress must look at what lands within existing and potential National Monuments and National Wildlife Refuges could be protected using the Wilderness Act.

The Trump Administration attempted to – illegally – dismantle the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah and considered dismantling several of our National Monuments here in New Mexico. Not only should President Biden re-designate the two Utah monuments, but Congress must designate as much of those two monuments as possible as Wilderness.

In addition, for Bears Ears, President Biden must expand the monument to the full 1.9 million acres requested by the tribes for whom that land is considered sacred. Management of Bears Ears should also be largely turned over to the tribes. In New Mexico and throughout the nation, huge portions of National Monuments and Wildlife Refuges must receive Wilderness designation.

In Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must be permanently removed from the oil and gas chopping block. In consultation with the Inupiat and Gwich’in people, as much of the refuge as possible that remains undesignated as Wilderness must be designated. This includes Wilderness for the fragile 1002 area that has oil and gas interests constantly salivating.

In the National Wildlife Refuges and other public lands along the Mexican border, construction of the ridiculous Trump wall has destroyed countless sacred sites, wildlife corridors and ecosystems leaving a scar across the landscape for hundreds of miles. These lands must be permanently protected.

In the Tongass National Forest where the Trump Administration exempted large pristine areas from protections so they could be logged, equally massive tracks of roadless areas must be protected permanently as Wilderness.

These are just a few examples. The same type of Wilderness-centered thinking must be applied to all public lands to remove threats under a future, corrupt administration.

The Wilderness Act is key to protecting these lands forever.

The Wilderness Act is not intended to work alone. Our nation is blessed to have a whole host of other conservation laws including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act. But the Wilderness Act is unique in that it is the most difficult conservation law for a Presidential administration to undermine. Now is the time to use Wilderness as a tool to protect our lands, waters, sacred sites, air and climate.

New Mexico is unique. We have a Congressional delegation that has proven strongly pro-conservation and pro-public lands. Senators Udall and Heinrich are conservation heroes. Now we have Representative Haaland, a powerful advocate for lands and community, at the Department of Interior. Senator Lujan and Representative Leger-Fernandez must continue the conservation-oriented tradition among our elected officials.

Among all the vital legislation that needs to pass this year (COVID-19 relief, Voting Rights, DC statehood, etc.), I strongly urge New Mexico’s Congressional delegation to take the lead in crafting and passing a wide-ranging, comprehensive, massive, nation-wide Wilderness bill for 2021.

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