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Lawmakers push bills to protect more land in the Mountain West

Brendan Bombaci

Several bills that would protect public lands and waters around the Mountain West have recently been reintroduced in Congress, and two in particular seem to have a decent shot at reaching the president's desk.

The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, introduced by New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, would designate parts of the Gila River, its watershed and other rivers in the Gila National Forest as wild and scenic rivers. It's heading to the Senate floor after clearing committee last week.

In Colorado, a trio of lawmakers have renewed their effort to pass the slightly revamped Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy, or CORE, Act, which would protect about 420,000 acres of public lands in the state.

Meanwhile, two other recently reintroduced public lands bills are more sweeping and ambitious, but they're not sponsored by local lawmakers. One is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate about 23 million acres in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon as wilderness and create biological corridors for wildlife. It would also add protections for about 1,800 miles of rivers and streams.

“Almost every species that was here when Europeans first arrived is still here. You can't say that in very many parts of the world,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, when discussing the region. “With this ecosystem bill, the United States once again has the chance to become the world leader in conservation.”

The bill is introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and is similar to several earlier iterations that have been proposed since the 1990s. Garrity said the effort doesn’t infringe on private property or Indigenous treaty rights, but rather further protects specific types of public lands – known as inventoried roadless areas – from development.

“We're in the middle of the world's sixth great extinction period, and scientists have discovered that to ensure that species survive over the long run, places like Yellowstone National Park aren't big enough,” Garrity said. “Instead of protecting parks and wilderness areas, we have to protect entire ecosystems. And the reason is that scientists have discovered [that] the bigger the protected area, the more native species that still survive.”

Garrity also said the bill helps the Biden administration meet its goal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

In Utah, America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act would designate more than eight million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands as wilderness. That bill, reintroduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, was supported by the Navajo Nation Council in 2021 and derided by the state's conservative lawmakers.

These efforts come after President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada as a national monument earlier this year and established the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument last fall.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey