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Our Landlords of the West

July 15, 2009
Op-Ed and Speech
In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This legislation established 54 designated wilderness areas consisting of nine million acres of land and officially defined wilderness as "an area of generally undisturbed federal land that prohibits commercial activities, motorized access, roads, structures, and facilities."

While there were many crazy things that came out of the 60's, the concept of wilderness preservation wasn't one of them. Protecting and conserving special areas for future generations was, and continues to be a good idea. But any good idea when taken too far can result in disaster. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has happened with federal wilderness designations.

Today, we find many wilderness advocacy groups are demanding that millions of additional acres that do not meet wilderness criteria be designated as wilderness. Their goal is to at least double the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System. If they succeed, as much as one in every three acres of federal land would be formally designated as wilderness.

With the recent passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, signed into law by President Obama on March 30, 2009, the federal government has officially locked up more than 709 wilderness areas and more than 109 million acres of land. That is the equivalent of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Keep in mind that according to the Census Bureau, there are only 108 million acres of developed land in the United States.

In other words, Congress has now designated more land as federal wilderness areas than the total acreage of developed land in this country.

Washington bureaucrats and alarmist special interest groups, many of whom rarely, if ever, frequent the West, have gone to great lengths to convey the misguided notion that we are essentially running out of wilderness in this country. The truth is that more than five percent of the total land within the United States has been designated wilderness.
If you think your homeowner's association is bad, try the federal government.

The reality is that these land grabs have a far greater impact on the West than many realize. They eliminate jobs and local tax revenue that so many rural Western communities rely upon.

Today, Democratic lawmakers and east coast environmental lobbyists, drunk with power, are shepherding legislation through congress that will designate an additional 25 million acres of federal land as wilderness. That's an additional 25 million acres utilized only by the hiker enthusiast who can afford the often costly journey required to access these lands. There is no question that an overwhelming majority of American families struggling to make ends meet during these challenging economic times would benefit far more from lower energy bills than yet another massive land sweep headed straight for the coffers of special interest groups.

So here we are, 109 million acres of wilderness, an increasing reliance on foreign oil, and a Congress riding along in the back pockets of radical environmental groups determined to lock up the West. In many places, the fight over how much wilderness to designate is among the most bitter and divisive land management policy debates. Rather than coming closer to accommodation and compromise as time goes by, in most states the positions of the two sides in the wilderness debate are becoming more rigid and unyielding. Who benefits from this? Surely not the vast majority of American people. Perhaps it's time we reevaluate the long-term impact of wilderness designations.