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Wilderness bill heads for House

More than 14,000 local acres included in package

Posted: January 18, 2009 9:19 p.m.
Updated: January 19, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Close to 14,000 acres south of Agua Dulce are to be protected by the Eastern Sierra & Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act. The area is bounded by these points listed on the adjacent map. 1. Agua Dulce Canyon 2. Bear Canyon 3. Magic Mountain 4. San Gabriel Mountains 5. Fryer Canyon

 
Looking over the snowy hills near Mammoth, Bob Haueter reflected on the beauty of more than 470,000 acres of California now on the verge of being protected by federal decree.

"As I sit here, I can look out at Mammoth and the mountains, and I see a lot of snow and a lot of work now done," Haueter, deputy chief of staff for Congressman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, said Thursday as news of the Senate's overwhelming endorsement of the wilderness bill reached him in the remote and rugged land the bill promises to protect.

"I've been working on this for two years, since I was hired by the Congressman," Haueter said.

After scores of meetings and interviews with people living in remote places of California, Haueter, McKeon and Sen. Barbara Boxer are now poised to look back on two years of fighting to get the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Mountains Wild Heritage Act through Congress.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 73-21 in favor of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which seeks to protect about two million acres of wilderness across America and includes 160 smaller similar acts, including the wilderness bill and McKeon's Mammoth Lake Community Water District bill.

Both bills, tucked inside the larger omnibus lands bill, are now on their way to the House for consideration.
Senators guaranteed easy passage of the bill when they participated in a cloture vote on the Omnibus bill, effectively removing of the threat of a filibuster.

McKeon hopes the bill will be sitting on the desk of President-elect Barack Obama once he assumes office.

"We are excited to see the bill not only passed but passed with an overwhelming majority and (to have) such bipartisan support in the Senate," said Haueter, speaking about himself and the congressman.

"My hunch - and it's only a hunch - is that the present bill will be on the president's desk in the next week or two for him to sign," he said. "That's what the congressman is hoping for."

The legislation is not currently on the House calendar.

The House has the option of sending it to the Natural Resources Committee, where members could re-write some parts of the Act. The House can also send the bill in its entirety to the same committee, or it could be sent directly to the floor for a vote.

"McKeon has said many times that Republicans are not anti-environmentalists," said Haueter. "We want to see wilderness preserved for our children as much as environmentalists want to see it preserved for their children."

Sally Miller, senior field representative for the Wilderness Society, worked with Haueter and McKeon on the bill.

Speaking to The Signal from Mammoth, where she compared final notes on the bill with Haueter, Miller was one of the many people surveyed by politicians fine-tuning the bill.

"We're very excited and we're very grateful for Congressman McKeon and Senator Boxer," she said. "They did a fabulous job. They show how people can work across the aisle and now we're looking forward to the bill's passage."

Local Sierra Club member Sandra Cattell said she, too, is excited about the Senate approving the wilderness bill.

"I am so thrilled," she said when told about the Senate vote. "How exciting."

If passed, the act will protect more than 14,000 acres in the hilly Magic Mountain area near Sand Canyon and south of Agua Dulce, as well as tens of thousands of acres in Mono County, including 77,233 acres in what's called the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness Additions near Yosemite National Park.

But while everyone agrees that land to be protected, not everyone agrees with the act.

Dick Noles, executive director of Advocates for Access to Public Lands, said he haggled with McKeon and Haueter over concerns the act would eliminate mining in and around Inyo County. He's also concerned that snowmobiling would be outlawed.

"I'm opposed to the act for a number of reasons," said Noles when reached at his home in Bishop. "They want to stop mining and I think that's terrible."

Haueter said land identified in the act does not interfere with mining.

On the issue of snowmobiling, Haueter said concessions were made to accommodate snowmobiling advocates. The wilderness bill was amended to include 11,000 acres of winter recreation area.

"We now have the first-ever winter recreational area with the strongest language possible in a bill," Haueter said, adding that he planned to snowmobile with some Bridgeport residents Saturday morning.

Before he boarded a plane out of Washington Thursday, McKeon released a written statement praising passage of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

"I am pleased the Senate has recognized the need to set aside 470,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the 25th Congressional District," McKeon said. "This action ensures that these lands will be preserved for the use and enjoyment of future generations."

Boxer, in a written statement of her own, said, "The Senate's passage of this legislation is an important step in preserving California's rich natural heritage. It will ensure that as California's population continues to grow, areas like the magnificent High Sierra lands, the White Mountains, and classic Southern California mountain landscape will remain protected for generations to come."

The Senate Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was introduced by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman and includes protections for close to 2 million acres nationwide.

California regions with included safeguards are in Riverside County, the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Mountains, and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

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