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Jessica Estepa, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, March 9, 2012

Even as the Republican and Democratic sponsors of two wilderness bills yesterday said they had strong community support for their measures, a key House subcommittee chairman expressed skepticism about the proposals.

On the table before the Natural Resources subpanel on public lands were two bills that would designate a combined 80,000 acres of wilderness and more than 150 miles of wild and scenic rivers in Oregon and Nevada.

Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the wilderness designations — the highest form of public land protection — had the potential to restrict access for timber, grazing, mining, recreation and other job creating activities, as well as hurt rural communities with land management decisions.

“We need to ensure that those designations are fully vetted and protect the interests and livelihoods of the communities and stakeholders that could be impacted, something Washington doesn’t do very well,” he said.

But conservation groups applauded the bills.

“This Congress still has time to make significant gains for public lands protection, and it is heartening to see measures to provide a legacy for future generations being considered,” said Mike Matz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Campaign for America’s Wilderness.

H.R. 3436, offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), would expand the existing wilderness near southwest Oregon’s scenic Rogue River by more than 58,000 acres and would protect an additional 35 of the river’s tributaries. The bill would nearly triple the size of the 36,000-acre Wild Rogue Wilderness, which was created by Congress in 1978.

Recreationists come to the area looking for commercial and sport fishing, rafting, jet boat tours and hiking, helping stimulate the economy, Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Mike Pool said. BLM manages 8,600 acres of the land, while the rest is managed by the Forest Service.

“The Rogue is one of Oregon’s most important and productive salmon runs and one of the nation’s most well-known rivers,” DeFazio said. “Anyone who has rafted, fished or hiked along the wild and scenic Rogue has experienced a truly wild canyon, much of which is only accessible by boat or foot.”

DeFazio said the local timber industry has not opposed the bill and that 77 percent of Oregonians support additional protections for the river.

As the proposal advances, DeFazio intends to package it with another bill that would revive logging on about 1.5 million acres of BLM land, a move that some groups say could ultimately hurt the wilderness designation.

“It is very important that legislation to protect these spectacular areas not be linked to controversial and reckless measures to weaken environmental protections for public lands elsewhere in Oregon,” said Steve Pedery, Oregon Wild’s conservation director, in a statement.

Rep. Mark Amodei’s (R-Nev.) H.R. 3377 would create the Pine Forest Range Wilderness, an area in northern Nevada. The proposal is supported by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The bill would create 26,000 acres of wilderness in Humboldt County, Nev., on public lands managed by BLM, mostly made up of the Blue Lakes and Alder Creek wilderness study areas. The bill calls for 1,150 acres of the federal land not be designated as wilderness. That land would be exchanged for private parcels of land owned by local ranchers.

The proposal has received support from the county, ranchers, the state’s wildlife department, the University of Nevada and the state Legislature, Amodei said.

“Coming from a state with as much public land as Nevada has, I have seen how controversial public land management decisions can be, particularly those involving wilderness designations,” he said. “Having the consensus that has been developed through these stakeholders is … rare and lauded.”

The panel also looked at two bills about Oregon rivers. H.R. 752 would add an additional 15.1 miles to the Molalla River’s wild and scenic river designation. H.R. 1415 would move the boundaries of the Chetco River’s wild and scenic segments.