Senate considers expanding wilderness protection

January 11, 2009 7:41:53 AM PST
Congress is considering whether to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as wilderness in an early showdown that threatens to derail pledges by Senate leaders to work cooperatively as a new administration takes office.

The largest expansion of wilderness protection in 25 years has bipartisan support and would include California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, Oregon's Mount Hood, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

The bill was scuttled last year after objections from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said spending in the bill was excessive - nearly $4 billion over five years. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is seeking a rare Sunday vote in an apparent effort to punish Coburn and antagonize his GOP colleagues.

The scheduled Sunday session would try to limit GOP stalling tactics and move the bill forward.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the measure represents years of work by lawmakers from many states and both parties. The legislation combines about 160 bills covering nearly every state.

Besides new wilderness designations - the highest level of government protection for public lands - the bill would designate the childhood home of former President Bill Clinton in Hope, Ark., as a national historic site and expand protections for dozens of national parks, rivers and water resources.

In a statement, Coburn said the "earmark-laden" measure "makes a mockery of voters' hopes for change."

For example, Coburn said, the bill includes $3 million for a "road to nowhere" through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; $460 million for a water project designed to save 500 salmon in California; and $3.5 million to help celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015.

Environmental groups also oppose the Alaska road. The rest of the bill, they say, would be a huge accomplishment for Congress.


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