Obama Signs Major Land Conservation Law
By Juliet Eilperin
President Obama signed a massive lands package into law today, protecting more than two million acres as wilderness and creating a new national system to conserve land held by the Bureau of Land Management.
The measure, a collection of 170 different bills that represents the most significant wilderness law in at least 15 years, would provide the highest level of federal protection to areas such as Oregon's Mount Hood and part of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest, along with other sites in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia. It also authorizes the first coordinated federal research program to investigate ocean acidification and additional funding to protect ecologically-valuable coastal areas and estuaries.
At the signing ceremony Obama said, "This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share. That's something all Americans can support."
"And that's why so much of this legislation," he continued, "some of it decades in the making, has the backing of Americans from every walk of life and corner of this country, ranchers and fishermen, small-business owners, environmentalists, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, on the local, state and federal levels, all united around the idea that there should be places that we must preserve, all doing the hard work of seeking common ground to protect the parks and other places that we cherish."
The law also establishes the 26-million acre National Landscape Conservation System, which aims to protect the most environmentally and historically-significant lands controlled by the BLM. The new system, which encompasses 850 sites including the Canyons of Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona and Nevada's Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area, requires the agency to make conservation a priority when managing these areas.
"This is an historic moment for our public lands," said The Wilderness Society president William Meadows. "Future generations will look back at this day as one of the most important dates in American land conservation history."
While the package enjoyed broad bipartisan support, it initially ran into trouble over questions such as how it would affect gun rights and other activities on protected federal land. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who helped add language to the law ensuring access to hunting, fishing, trapping and recreational shooting on public lands, called the measure "hugely beneficial to individual communities, especially in Western states where the federal government owns so much of the land."
The measure also includes a controversial measure that could speed the building of a road traversing the pristine Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The 800 residents of King Cove, Alaska, have sought the road for more than a decade in order to have better access to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay, but critics question why the construction is necessary since taxpayers have already spent $41 million to build a King Cove medical center and buy a new hovercraft to transport local residents to Cold Bay.
Under the new law the Interior Secretary can determine whether the land exchange required for the road building "is in the public interest," according to Murkowski's office. The Interior Department would have to issue an environmental impact statement before approving the project, and could block the road altogether.
Posted at 5:44 PM ET on Mar 30, 2009
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