PICKERINGTON, Ohio -- Supporters of H.R. 1581 -- the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011 -- told U.S. lawmakers on July 26 that the bill would allow local communities to decide the proper uses of 43 million acres of protected public land, which could include off-highway riding, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) reports.
But critics opposed releasing the protected land all at once. Instead, they want Congress to release the land on a piecemeal basis.
The statements were made during a U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands hearing on H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011. The measure would remove the stringent use restrictions on almost 6.7 million acres managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and on 36.1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land that was evaluated for strict congressional Wilderness land-use designations.
A Wilderness designation is one of the strictest forms of public land management. Once Congress designates an area as Wilderness, nearly all forms of non-pedestrian recreation are illegal, including off-highway vehicle (OHV) and bicycle riding.
The AMA supports appropriate Wilderness designations that meet the criteria established by Congress in 1964, but anti-OHV forces have been abusing legislative and administrative processes in repeated attempts to ban responsible OHV recreation on public land.
The BLM and USFS have determined the 43 million acres covered by H.R. 1581 aren't suitable for Wilderness designation, but because of various laws and rules they must continue to strictly manage the land until Congress releases it for other possible uses.
The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act would release the land, freeing up land managers to determine new uses, if any, such as allowing responsible OHV recreation where it currently isn't allowed.
U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was joined by other lawmakers in introducing the bill, said the measure "simply acts on recommendations made by the federal government and returns the management of tens of millions of acres of public land to local communities so that more Americans can have access to our public lands.
"These communities know best how to manage the lands, whether for increased recreation, preservation or development," he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) echoed McCarthy's comments.
"As chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of this important piece of legislation," Pearce said. "H.R. 1581 is good for the West and good for America. It will allow more Americans to enjoy our federal lands, and allow us to actually protect the habitats of wildlife through proper land management."
But BLM Director Robert Abbey, who opposed the bill, testified that even though the land didn't earn an endorsement for Wilderness designation before, it might now.
"These recommendations are now 20 years old, and the on-the-ground work associated with them is as much as 30 years old," Abbey said. "During that time in a number of places, resource conditions have changed, our understanding of mineral resources has changed, and public opinion has changed.
"If these suitability recommendations were made today, many of them would undoubtedly be different," he said.
The 43 million acres have been locked up for years, if not decades, even though federal land managers have noted the land doesn't qualify for the very restrictive Wilderness designation. AMA Washington Representative Rick Podliska wondered how the land could qualify for Wilderness designation now when it was deemed unsuitable 20 or 30 years ago.
"For years, groups hoping to keep responsible off-highway riders off public land have been able to get areas earmarked for possible inclusion in the nation's Wilderness system, which immediately bars off-highway riding, bicycling and almost all other activities while the Wilderness study is under way," Podliska said.
"We commend Rep. Kevin McCarthy for introducing H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, and Chairman Rob Bishop for holding a hearing on this bill," he said. "The hearing illustrated why this bill is necessary and that all Americans should be able to enjoy our federal lands.
"The actions taken by the current Congress could have a profound impact on the ability of responsible off-highway riders to use public land," Podliska continued. "It's important that all responsible riders stay informed about Wilderness bills in Congress, and take action, when necessary, to help protect their right to ride."
The best way to stay informed is to sign up for AMA email Action Alerts at http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/Rights/GetInvolved/ActionAlertSignUp.aspx