Conservationists oppose bill to remove protections from federal wilderness study areas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Congressional bid to remove nearly 60 million acres of remote, roadless national forest lands, including 200,000 acres in West Virginia, from  protection as potential wilderness areas, is drawing fire from conservationists.The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act was introduced in April by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.The act seeks to release the U.S. Forest Service's inventory of roadless areas that have not been designated wilderness areas, or not yet been recommended for wilderness protection, from continued management as de facto wilderness areas. Wilderness study areas managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management would receive similar treatment.According to the proposed legislation, the federal lands in question, identified as having the attributes for possible wilderness designation since the 1970s, "have been adequately studied for wilderness designation," and should return to multiple-use management. Multiple use management could include such activities as logging, grazing, mineral and oil and gas development.Conservationists argue that most of the land affected by the act has not been seriously examined for inclusion in the federal wilderness system."The land won't all end up in wilderness, but it at least deserves a look -- not a meat-ax approach like this," said Doug Scott, manager of policy and research for the Pew Environmental Groups Campaign for American Wilderness. "Decisions on how to manage these lands are better made at the local level by local people, rather than through a one-shot bill passed by Congress.""In West Virginia, the act would eliminate protection for iconic wild places in the Monongahela National Forest like Seneca Creek, Tea Creek or Canaan Mountain," said Mike Costello, coordinator of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition.
"Wilderness designation can take time," Costello said. "It took several steps to get wilderness status for Otter Creek," West Virginia's first wilderness area, he said. "We have no position against development in the forest, but we do believe some places with wild values need to be protected for future generations of West Virginians."Thirty states, including West Virginia, have federal roadless areas that would be affected by the act's passage. In addition to the Monongahela National Forest, the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests manage remote lands in West Virginia.Even though McCarthy, the act's co-sponsor, is the majority whip in the House, Scott said passage of the bill during the current session of Congress is doubtful."I think there are enough people opposed to it in the Democrat-controlled Senate to block it," he said. "But in another year and a half, there may no longer be a Democratic majority. And there's always the chance someone could attach the act to a must-pass bill."Scott said major backers of the act's passage include oil and gas developers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169. 
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