Washington, DC –– In its final action, the 108th Congress nullified the effects of three recent court rulings extending key wilderness protections to wildlife refuge, national park and forest lands, according to Wilderness Watch and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Through unrelated provisions inserted in the $388 billion omnibus bill, Congressional leaders cut back wilderness safeguards in Alaska, Idaho and the Georgia seacoast.
Ironically, 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. In last week’s lame duck session, Congress, for the first time, stripped wilderness protection from federal lands. And, for only the second time in 40 years, it suspended restrictions on motorized access to an existing wilderness. The three anti-wilderness riders affected –
- Cumberland Island, which lies off Georgia’s southeast coast, is the largest undeveloped barrier island on the eastern seaboard. The island provides shelter for over 300 species of birds and nesting sites for sea turtles, including the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. The entire island was designated as the Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972. Ten years later Congress designated 8,800 acres of the heart of the Island’s north end as the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The rider breaks up the contiguous wilderness into tiny pieces, approves roads cutting through the remaining wilderness and authorizes motorized tours by park concessionaires. The rider renders moot an 11th Circuit ruling won earlier this year by Wilderness Watch and PEER;
- Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Wildernesses represent 90% of all refuge wilderness in the U.S. Last year, the 9th Circuit ruled that commercial aquaculture activities are prohibited within national wildlife refuge wilderness in Alaska. A rider sponsored by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens will make commercial aquaculture allowable in all refuge wildernesses in Alaska; and
- Wild Salmon River, which flows through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. The U.S. Forest Service allowed seven commercial outfitters over the years to set up temporary outfitter camps along the congressionally designated Wild Salmon River. The outfitters gradually turned those temporary camps into permanent structures (cabins and lodges with glass windows, doors, covered porches, septic systems, etc) for their clientele. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prohibits permanent structures within a Wild River corridor. When a new Forest Supervisor told the outfitters the camps must go, four complied, removing all developments from their campsites. Three, however, refused to dismantle their structures. Wilderness Watch then sued and won a district ruling that the lodges were illegal and had to be removed within 5 years. This rider authorizes the lodges to remain.
“Forty years ago the American people made a covenant with future generations to protect the few remaining remnants of the original wild America,” stated George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “This Congress broke that promise. That they could do so with such impunity is a sad testament to the short-sighted greed and lack of integrity that are the hallmarks of the current leadership in Washington.”
In the one instance where it acted to extend wilderness protection, the lame duck Congress also created exceptions for use of motorized recreation, an anathema to wilderness. Thus, in designating wilderness at Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, Congress continued to allow “the use of motors on the lake waters, including snowmobiles.”
“These latest Congressional actions cavalierly cast aside four decades of national wilderness policy for the benefit of a tiny handful of well-connected constituents,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to Greyfield Inn, the private corporation that had run motorized tours through Cumberland Island wilderness areas for its guests, as the sole beneficiary of one rider. “Unfortunately, the current Congressional leadership appears quite willing to sell out the Wilderness Act to the highest bidder.”
Wilderness Watch is based in Missoula, Montana. Founded in 1989, it is the only national organization dedicated solely to the protection and proper stewardship of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness Watch has an active chapter in Atlanta, Georgia and Fairbanks, Alaska. (www.wildernesswatch.org)