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Congress preserves nation’s wilderness

Omnibus Public Lands Management Act protects 14,000 acres near Agua Dulce, 40,000 in SoCal

Posted: March 26, 2009 1:10 a.m.
Updated: March 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Pictured above is a small portion of the nearly 470,000 acres of wilderness in California which will be preserved by the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Mountains Wild Heritage Act.

Congress approved a bill Wednesday to preserve more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, including 40,000 acres in Southern California and 14,000 acres near Agua Dulce.

On a 285-140 vote, the House passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, including 160 separate wilderness-preserving bills. The act is expected to go before the president next week.

Under the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Mountains Wild Heritage Act, included in the bill, some 470,000 acres will be protected in California.

"I'm happy that it passed," Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon said Wednesday. "Our bill stands on its own merits and probably would have passed as a stand-alone bill."

The vote came two weeks after the House rejected the bill amid a partisan dispute over gun rights in national parks. The measure was brought up again in the Senate and approved last week, setting up Wednesday's House of Representatives vote.

Thirty-eight Republicans voted "yes" on the bill, which McKeon said was a surprisingly high number.

"That's bipartisanship," he said. "I wouldn't expect to get a large amount of Republicans voting for such a large bill," said the Santa Clarita Valley Republican.

Some 420,000 acres will be protected in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, said Bob Haueter, field deputy for McKeon.

McKeon was a strong backer of the bill, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs; Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

One of the largest congressional districts in the state, McKeon's 25th includes the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and stretches north to Mono and Inyo counties.

McKeon praised the public-input nature of the Wild Heritage Act and said constant public meetings helped shape it.

"I believe in (working) bottom-up rather than top-down, and we followed that principle all the way through," he said. "I think we held true to working with the local people."

Included in the act is the creation of an 11,000-acre winter recreation area, an amendment added in response to snowmobile enthusiasts' concerns the wilderness designation would leave them out in the cold.

"Folks have worked long and hard to see this," said Sally Miller of The Wilderness Society in Lee Vining. "We hope this will help put the Eastern Sierras even more on the map."

If signed by President Obama, which is likely, the act will also release 50,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra presently set aside as wilderness study areas, Haueter said. Those study areas, he said, were originally set aside to examine their feasibility as protected wilderness.

"I'm so delighted for future generations," Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste said. "It is a tremendous benefit to have that level of preservation."

She sang the praises of McKeon and Boxer for their dedication to the bill, and the bipartisan nature of their work.

The wilderness protection is a perfect fit with the city's own open-space preservation efforts, she said, affording residents the knowledge that wild country remains just a short drive away.

"It's a real jewel in our backyard," she said.

The act represents one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in a quarter-century. It would confer the government's highest level of protection on land in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Supporters called the bill landmark legislation that will strengthen the national park system, restore national forests, preserve wild and scenic rivers, protect battlefields and restore balance to the management of public lands.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a "land grab" that would block energy development on vast swaths of federal land.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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