Environmentalists warn federal bills could threaten public land

Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith speaks at an event marking the release of a report by Environment Virginia that details several federal bills conservationists say could have major impacts on public forest land, including those in Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest. Photo by John Robinson.

In the latest chapter of the debate between resource extraction and conservation, Virginia environmentalists are taking aim at a crop of legislation moving through the U.S. House of Representatives that they say would damage protected wilderness areas in Virginia and around the country.

Advocacy group Environment Virginia held a press event Wednesday at Darden Towe Park to release “Trashing our Treasures: Congressional Assault on the Best of America,” a report taking aim at several Republican-sponsored bills. The event featured members of state environmental groups and local government, who detailed the environmental, social, and economic benefits of preserving wilderness areas and spoke out against the legislation.

Bills cited in the report include the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act (HR 1126), which forces the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to sell “excess public lands” to the highest bidder, and the American Lands Act (HR 2588), which requires the BLM and Forest Service to auction off 8 percent of their federal land annually until 2016. This year alone, the bill would result in the sale of nearly 36 million acres of forest and public land, according to the report—“simply landgrabs,” according to Jim Murray of the Virginia Wilderness Committee.

Two bills that would open up protected areas to road building, construction, and logging came under the most fire. Opponents of the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act (HR 1581) and the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act (HR 2834) said these bills counteract measures in the celebrated Wilderness Act of 1964, which set aside 9million acres to remain untouched by development.

Virginia lands are among those in danger, conservationists warn.

“The wilderness areas in Shenandoah National Park are definitely under threat, as are the two national forests in Virginia,” said David Hannah, conservation director at Wild Virginia. “I feel we should be taking whatever steps necessary to permanently protect these lands.”

“Our wilderness areas are our greatest natural resource,” said Ari Daniels of Charlottesville’s Outdoor Adventure Social Club. “We can pull various fuel sources or short-term money sources, but those are all extremely short-lived. Unfortunately, the wake of the damage that we do there is much harder to undo.”

Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s Ninth District is a cosponsor of HR 1581. Maggie Seidel, a spokesperson for Griffith, said the bill would only release lands that the BLM deemed as “not suitable for wilderness designation.” The BLM oversees and evaluates 12 million acres of land, called Wilderness Study Areas, and decides whether or not the land should be made off-limits for development. Seidel said 6.7 million acres that didn’t make the cut would be returned to “local land managers, communities, and stakeholders in and around the areas,” who would determine how to use the land.

“Congressman Griffith has been receiving complaints from constituents about being denied access to certain national forest lands,” Seidel said. “In a number of cases, these lands have been accessed and utilized for generations.”

But opponents of the legislation say protected lands have great economic value just as they are. Shenandoah National Park attracts 1.5 million visitors each year, and contributes about $960 million to the state economy.

“Protecting our national parks isn’t just about protecting jobs, it’s about protecting our tourism economy,” said City Councilor Dede Smith. “That’s why it’s so shocking to see this report about these proposed bills that would threaten such an environmentally and economically important resource.”

Despite the sense of urgency from environmentalists, for now, the bills appear unlikely to pass. The website govtrack.us, which tracks and analyzes pending legislation, gave many of these bills a 5 percent or less chance of success. The other legislation targeted by the report was given similarly slim chances of survival.

“Right now, the Senate is shooting down these bills, but that might not stand in the future, depending on who is elected and what agenda they have,” said Kate Dylewsky, co-author of the report. She said passage of these bills, unlikely as it is, would set a “dangerous precedent of big oil companies, mining companies and logging companies, being more important to our country than our wild places.”—Ryan McCrimmon

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