U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette made a hard pitch Monday to pass a nearly 1.4 million-acre wilderness-protection package, including more than 600,000 acres in Colorado.
Her office said the Democratic-led House could approve the largest federal lands set aside involving three states this week. Then, it would have to start over in the Republican-led Senate, where many Democratic bills have gone on to stall out the last two years.
The bill passed the Rules Committee 9-4 Monday.
To remove any doubt about of the proposal's eventual fate, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, read a "statement of administration policy" in a hearing on the bill Monday afternoon. The president's advisers say if the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, H.R. 2546, gets to his desk, he will veto it.
On top of 600,000 acres in Colorado, the bill would give the highest level of federal protections to almost 700,000 acres in California and Washington, as well. DeGette's wilderness act also would add almost 1,000 miles of waterways to the National Wild and Scenic River Systems. DeGette's office said the bill could be voted on by the full House as soon as Wednesday.
The package includes six previous and separate bills already approved by the House Natural Resources Committee, including DeGette's Colorado Wilderness Act, which seeks to protect low-lying remote canyon areas in 32 areas of the state.
"It is the product of decades of work, countless community meetings and dozens of visits to some of the most remote areas of my state," DeGette told the House Rules Committee Monday.
She contended, "The designations in this bill will help protect clean air and clean water, wildlife habitat and world-class recreation opportunities, which will promote jobs and support local economies that are reliant on our multi-billion dollar outdoor economy."
DeGette said she had received more than 14,000 letters of support for the bill from Colorado residents and endorsements from more than 350 businesses across the state.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican and Yale-educated forester from Arkansas, said some members of Congress from the affected regions don't support the bill.
He said reforestation and maintaining existing public lands made more sense than designating more land.
"Public lands decisions should be made with local collaboration and input," Westerman told the committee. "They have real consequences for communities on the ground, who live with the consequences of bad policy."
Westerman said the country already has 803 wilderness areas taking up 111 million acres.
"To put that in perspective, that's wilderness area larger than the state of California that already exists in our country," he said of the state with 105 million acres.
Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, sought to strike about 39,000 acres in Montezuma and Delores counties, an inclusion opposed by local leaders, he said. He also sought to protect military helicopter landing zones used in training.