Will Congress Go Another Year Without Designating New Wilderness?

The only thing Congress has preserved in the last four years is its record dry spell.


WASHINGTON — This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the law that created a new designation for public lands that retain their “primeval character and influence.” Yet the only thing Congress has preserved in the last four years is its record dry spell, having designated no new areas of the country for protection under that law since 2009.

The 112th Congress, in 2010 and 2011, was the first since the law’s passage to fail to designate any new wilderness. And now, halfway through the 113th Congress, it’s unclear whether any more will be designated this session, either.

The lack of new designations “speaks to the broader dysfunction of Congress,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society. “They seem to have lost the ability to compromise and move forward.”

While there are other designations for public lands, such as parks, national forests and wildlife refuges, wilderness is the highest protection that can be given to wild lands. Such areas are off-limits to drilling, logging, roads and most motorized vehicles. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined the areas it sought to protect simply: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

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