Two weeks in the West

  • Mexican vine snake, a resident of the Tumacacori Highlands

    COURTESY THOMAS C. BRENNAN
 

In southern Arizona's Tumacacori Highlands, the tropics meet the desert. Black bears roam steep canyons and oak-covered hillsides alongside Mexican vine snakes, cuckoos and jaguars. Located just north of the border, the region is one of the most biologically diverse in the country. 

In September, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would protect more than 80,000 acres of this lush desert as wilderness. It's one of 13 wilderness bills in the West that have been introduced in Congress this year, and it may actually have a chance of passing. Following seven anemic years for the Wilderness Act, during which just 3 million acres gained protection nationwide, a more favorable atmosphere in Washington has environmentalists licking their chops. 

"There's a whole lot of activity and a friendlier political climate," says Jeff Widen of The Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center. "We hope to pass through a bunch of bills." 

As of mid-September, there were more than 35 million acres of proposed Western wilderness on Congress' table. 

Front-runners include two bills that came within inches of passing in the last session of Congress, even with the anti-green Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in charge of the House Resources Committee: the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness in Idaho, pushed by Rep. Mike Simpson, R, and a proposal to designate nearly 130,000 acres on Oregon's Mount Hood and in the Columbia Gorge, sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D, and Gordon Smith, R, both from Oregon. In Colorado, a bipartisan effort to up protection on hundreds of thousands of acres in and around Rocky Mountain National Park also seems poised to pass. Other realistic proposals are moving forward for New Mexico and California, and wilderness watchers expect several more to be introduced in the next few months. 

Successful bills tend to be ones that were originally rooted in local efforts; it also helps if potential opposition has been smoothed over before the proposal made it to Congress. "Groups are doing a whole lot of work on the ground with a complete spectrum of stakeholders to try to work out differences up front," says The Wilderness Society's Widen. That will always be necessary, he says, no matter how many Democrats sit in Congress. 

And even the staunchest wilderness advocates admit that sweeping, multimillion-acre proposals have little chance of passing as written. The 22 million-acre, five-state Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and the 9.5 million-acre Red Rock Wilderness Act in Utah, both pushed at a national level, are likely to languish in committee. Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette's recently introduced 1.6 million acre proposal for her state also faces slim prospects, but a local group from San Miguel County hopes that by picking out the portion of the bill that applies to their county and taking it to Washington, they'll have a better chance. 

Other bills go through all of the right steps, and then hit roadblocks that have nothing to do with environmental protection. Congress knocked Washington's Wild Sky Wilderness bill around for five years before the House finally passed it this summer. Then an Oklahoma senator on an anti-spending crusade put a "hold" on the bill, blocking a Senate vote. The bill's not dead, but it could take lengthy debate to free it up, something a very busy Congress has little time for. Indeed, a chock-full agenda on Capitol Hill may be the biggest obstacle to getting more wilderness bills passed this year. 

The Tumacacori bill has been "worked, reworked, and reworked," according to Grijalva, and even nearby ranchers are on board. But it still must compete for floor time with all of Congress' other concerns. And, even if the wilderness is ultimately established, it may suffer from illegal border crossers, who often trample the area on their way into the United States. If they ignore international borders, after all, they're not likely to pay much attention to a wilderness boundary. 


Dead Birds

 

35,000

Number of bird carcasses recovered after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

 

250

Number of those that were bald eagles.

 

150,000

Number of eared grebes and ruddy ducks found dead of mostly unknown causes at California's Salton Sea in 1992.

 

14,000

Number of birds killed by avian botulism at the Salton Sea in 1996.

 

1.2 million

Number of European starlings killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in 2005.

 

158

Number of birds killed by hail in a single storm in Argentina, 2003.

 

113 Number of those birds that were Swainson's hawks.