Regional wilderness bill gets a hearing

 

Advocates of a wilderness bill covering 20 million acres in five states finally got a chance to make their case before a congressional subcommittee.

The contentious dialogue April 12 at the first public hearing of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) pitted Western lawmakers against the bill's sponsor, New York Rep. Carolyn Mulroney, D.

NREPA, which would establish wilderness in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington, currently has 58 sponsors, but none hail from the affected states.

Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., repeatedly told Mulroney to keep her hands off the wilderness issue in his state, reports the Billings Gazette. "Take care of the Adirondacks," he told the freshman lawmaker, referring to the mountain range in New York. "They're a damn mess."

Coming to Mulroney's aid was Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the Natural Resources Committee. Miller said representatives have an obligation to bring up issues from other parts of the country when they are in the national interest.

Williams was especially angered by a full-page advertisement plugging NREPA that ran in the New York Times a day earlier. The ad, paid for by several members of the Sierra Club, blasted Williams' wilderness bill.

"Your tax dollars pay $1 million/week to cut down your public forests in Montana," the ad read. "The so-called "Montana Wilderness Bill," introduced by Rep. Pat Williams, continues the waste. In fact our yearly losses will climb to over $60 million per year if the Williams bill passes."

The Williams bill, which would protect just over 2 million acres as wilderness, is slated for a vote before the House of Representatives some time in May. The conventional wisdom among many environmentalists and politicians is that NREPA is a political longshot while the Williams bill has a chance of gaining congressional approval.

Despite the critical language in the newspaper ad, the Sierra Club endorses both NREPA and the Williams bill, a position adopted by the group's board of directors following an internal rift (HCN, 11/27/93). Debbie Sease, the club's legislative director, testified at the NREPA hearing, touting the virtues of both bills.

Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which drafted NREPA, says "It must be a strain to do two things at once that are mutually exclusive. I wouldn't want to be in their (Sierra Club's) shoes."

Sease admits supporting both bills is not easy. "We're all still walking under the same banner, but is it tense? Is it tenuous? Well, yes."

The "release" language in the Williams bill remains the major bone of contention. Sease says the language currently in the bill is "innocuous' and would not change the federal government's current management of the state's undesignated roadless areas or prevent environmentalists from asking Congress to designate more wilderness in the future. But, she says, "Our hope is that we can strip the language from the bill on the House floor. There's no need for it."

That would please activists like Bader, who fear that Montana Sens. Conrad Burns, R, and Max Baucus, D, might insert release language in the Williams bill that would turn over the state's remaining roadless areas to the timber industry.

As for NREPA, Bader says the hearing was a successful first step for the legislation, if for no other reason than it flustered Williams, who has long reigned over the state's wilderness debate. "He was losing control," says Bader. "We accomplished what we wanted to."

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