Dear EarthTalk: I understand there is an effort underway to allow all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats and other motorized vehicles into wilderness areas, which would overturn a long-standing ban. What’s behind this? — Harry Schilling, Tempe, AZ
A new bill making its way through Congress, the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act (H.R. 2834), aims to make federally managed public lands across millions of acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property more accessible to hunters and anglers. And a key element of the bill calls for allowing motorized vehicles and equipment—as long as they are used for hunting or fishing—into these areas. Leading green groups are outraged because this would undermine 1964’s Wilderness Act which expressly bans motor vehicles on these last wild vestiges of untrammeled American land.
According to the non-profit Wilderness Society, the motorized vehicles provision “would result in the destruction of the very wilderness values that millions of American hunters and anglers cherish.”
“The practical effect could be to open all designated wilderness areas to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats, chainsaws and other motorized vehicles and equipment…” warns Wilderness Society president William Meadows in a letter to Congress. He adds that buildings, towers and temporary roads could even be built in currently pristine stretches of wilderness if the proposed bill becomes law.
But what’s most troubling to Meadows and others is language in the bill saying that “any requirements imposed by [the Wilderness Act] shall be implemented only insofar as they facilitate or enhance the original primary purpose or purposes for which the federal public lands or land unit was established and do not materially interfere with or hinder such purpose or purposes.” Meadows fears this could be construed to allow road building, timber cutting, mining, oil and gas drilling and other development in our remaining wilderness areas.
Another beef environmentalists have with the bill is that it would exempt decisions made or actions taken with regard to hunting and fishing on federal lands from federal environmental review and public disclosure regulations established under 1969’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Wilderness Society reports that this part of H.R. 2834 would keep the public and concerned parties out of decisions to compromise the integrity of wilderness but also other types of protected lands.
First introduced in the house last September by Michigan Republican Dan Benishek (with 45 bi-partisan co-sponsors), H.R. 2834 made it through the House Natural Resources Committee within three months and is poised for a full House vote later this spring. If it passes there, the Senate will take up a companion version, S. 2066, sponsored by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. Depending on how it plays out, the bill could be on the President’s desk by the summer.
“Recreational fishing and hunting are important and vital recreational activities on our federal public lands,” concludes the Wilderness Society, “but the anti-Wilderness provisions of H.R. 2834 should not be allowed to become law.”
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