DENVER — Congress just ended an almost five-year gap without conserving any public land, the longest such drought since World War II, and several proposed protections remain stalled, according to a new report from liberal and environmental groups.
Before setting aside 32,000 acres of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Monument in Michigan as wilderness last week, the last previous congressional action to protect public lands was in 2009, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on a call with reporters on Thursday.
“This Congress has set new records for inaction in wilderness conservation,” Salazar said.
The report from Equal Ground, a coalition pushing for increased conservation, highlights 10 proposed protected areas that have languished despite what it argues is strong local support. Those include Brown’s Canyon along the Arkansas River in Colorado, which was first suggested for protection 23 years ago; the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico; the Alpine Lakes near Seattle; and parts of the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
Advocates acknowledged that tight budgets and partisan bickering that culminated in last year’s government shutdown have made it hard to expand protected land.
Another obstacle has been a rising backlash among Western conservatives to federal control of land. In 2010, Utah, where President Bill Clinton’s unilateral preservation of 1.9 million acres as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 is still remembered with anger, passed a law allowing the state to seize control of protected federal lands.
One of the state’s congressmen, Rep. Rob Bishop, may become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, through which all conservation legislation may pass. He is a strong skeptic of expanded conservation.
“The stuff that is easy to make wilderness has already been done,” Bishop, a Republican, said in an interview Thursday. “From here on in, the candidates are marginal at best.”
Bishop said none of the proposed conservation areas listed in the report has the full support of the relevant congressional delegation or local communities and that much of the nation’s federal lands are already protected.
Former Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette joined Salazar on Thursday’s call and bemoaned his party’s backlash against land conservation.
“There are things upon which the parties should disagree,” he said. “But I never saw preservation of public lands to be one of them.”