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Protecting America's Wilderness and Public Lands Act Passes House

Posted: 03/01/2021
By: Thomas O'Keefe

As the first action on public lands legislation this Congress, the House just passed on a 227-200 vote (see how your Representatative voted) an impressive package of river conservation bills, many of which include priorities for the whitewater paddling community. The bills that formed this package, known as Protecting America's Wilderness and Public Lands Act (H.R. 803), include 1079 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, over 1.5 million acres of new Wilderness, and more than 1 million acres of sensitive watersheds closed to new mining claims. These bills passed the House of Representatives last Congress in February 2020 and again in July 2020 as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, but unfortunately saw no action in the Senate. Wasting no time in the new Congress, the House took up these bills again, and added a couple more bills as amendments. 


The legislation now moves to the Senate where Senator Manchin (WV) Chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


Thank your House member for voting in favor of this legisaltion, and also urge your Senator to take up this package of river protecting bills using our easy-action form today!


Background on the Individual Components of the Legislation of Interest to the Whitewater Boating Community


Colorado Wilderness Act of 2021 (Title I of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 803)


Thank @RepDianaDeGette and tag #ColoradoWildernessAct


The Colorado Wilderness Act would permanently protect 660,000 acres of primarily Bureau of Land Management lands in 36 different sites all across Colorado. The bill would protect lands and watersheds for a number of key whitewater reaches like Slickrock Canyon on the Dolores River, Norwood Canyon on the San Miguel River, and Grape Creek, a unique and stunning tributary of the Arkansas. This bill would prevent the development of future water facilities like dams, ditches, or diversions within these rivers. Grape Creek is currently under threat from a gold mining company. American Whitewater has long been involved in finding permanent protections for the iconic canyons of the Dolores River. Representative Degette has been fighting for the preservation of these wildlands for over 20 years and has worked diligently with the recreation community to ensure our interests are protected. Representative Diana DeGette has been the prime sponsor of this bill.


Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act (Title II of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 878)


Thank @RepHuffman and tag #MountainsAndRivers #ProtectCAPublicLands


This bill would designate 379 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers in Northwestern California’s Klamath Mountains and Coast Range. This region has some of the most spectacular wild rivers on the West Coast and the greatest concentration of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the nation, along with many more that qualify but are not yet designated. Representative Huffman has led an effort to protect additional rivers and their watersheds while ensuring that much-needed fuels reduction work is prioritized to help protect communities from wildfire. New Wild and Scenic Rivers would include the East Fork North Fork Trinity River and Canyon Creek, along with Redwood Creek, an overnight whitewater run that flows through the tallest living trees in the world. The bill would establish a 730,000 restoration area within the South Fork Trinity River, Mad River, and North Fork Eel watersheds for forest restoration and wildfire fuel reduction. In addition, 260,000 acres of proposed wilderness, largely in the Trinity River and Redwood Creek watersheds, would protect forests and rivers. Representative Jared Huffman has been the prime sponsor of this bill.


Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (Title III of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 999)


Thank @RepDerekKilmer and tag #WildOlympics


This bill would designate 464 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers that would include 19 rivers and their major tributaries. Rivers like the Sitkum, Matheny Creek, Sol Duc, Elwha, and South Fork Skokomish offer outstanding opportunities for whitewater paddlers to experience old-growth forests and fern-covered gorges. Some of the rivers like the Dosewallips have been considered for hydropower development schemes. The legislation would also protect 126,000 acres of ancient forests, within the headwaters of the major Olympic Peninsula rivers, as wilderness. Representative Derek Kilmer has been the prime sponsor of this bill.


Central Coast Heritage Protection Act (Title IV of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 973)


Thank @RepCarbajal and tag #CentralCoastWild #ProtectCAPublicLands


This bill would designate 159 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers including the upper reaches of Piru Creek, a rare waterway for the region that provides outstanding wilderness whitewater less than an hour drive from downtown Los Angeles. In addition, additional miles of Sespe Creek above the classic exploratory section would be designated. The bill would also designate nearly 250,000 acres of wilderness and create two new scenic areas in California's Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Representative Salud Carbajal is the prime sponsor of this bill.


San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act (Title V of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 693)


Thank @RepJudyChu and tag #SanGabrielMtns #ProtectCAPublicLands


This bill would designate 45.5 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Southern California including the San Gabriel and its primary forks. This bill spurs outdoor recreation by connecting park-poor areas, especially communities of color, to open space. This legislation expands the San Gabriel National Monument established in 2014 by an additional 109,00 acres, and establishes a National Recreation Area along the San Gabriel River. The legislation would also protect more than 30,000 acres as wilderness. Representative Judy Chu is the prime sponsor of this bill.


Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (Title VII of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 577)


Thank @RepJoeNeguse and tag #COREAct


The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy, or CORE, Act would permanently protect over 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado. The CORE Act unites four Colorado landscapes, providing important protections for the watersheds of the Crystal, Gunnison and Eagle Rivers. It includes the Thompson Divide, outside of Carbondale, CO, for which more than 200,000 acres of public land would be permanently withdrawn from future oil and gas leasing. This would protect water quality in the Crystal River and Roaring Fork river watersheds. The Continental Divide Recreation and Camp Hale Legacy Act would protect the headwaters of the Eagle River from future impacts such as mining. The Curecanti National Recreation Area would protect the landscapes just upstream of river recreational treasures like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. Representative Joe Neguse, the new Chair of the House National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee, is the prime sponsor of this bill.

Grand Canyon Protection Act (Title VIII of H.R. 803; originally H.R. 1052


Thank @RepRaulGrijalva and tag #KeepItGrand


The Grand Canyon Protection Act would make permanent the current temporary ban on new uranium mines on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Of concern are the impacts to groundwater that leads to contamination of drinking water and sites of cultural significance to Native American Tribes. In 2012 Interior Secretary Salazar signed a Public Land Order to prevent new mining claims in an area that includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate – where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. An Administration can only issue temporary mining bans, in this case 20 years. Representative Grijalva's bill would make the mining ban permanent on lands surrounding the Grand Canyon for the benefit of people, wildlife, and the environment.


The Amendments


As the first conservation legislation of the 117th Congress, the bill also attracted several amendments (avaiable for review on the Rules website) with 29 of them being considered on the floor in blocks. Those of interest to the whitewater paddling community include the following:


Representatives Peter DeFazio (OR) and Jared Huffman (CA) secured passage of Amendment 40 to add the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act of 2021 (H.R. 980) to the bill. This amendment would protect 101,000 acres of the headwaters of the Smith and Illinois Rivers, representing some of the most spectacular rivers on the West Coast known for their exceptional water quality. Under the outdated 1872 mining laws these watersheds have been open to new mining claims. Interest in low-grade nickel within the laterite soils of the Kalmiopsis has increased in recent years but could only be extracted through wholesale strip mining. These are some of the last intact and undeveloped rivers on West Coast and no place for a mine. American Whitewater has worked with a local coalition over many years to protect these spectacular rivers.


Among the good amendments that passed was Representative Barragan’s (CA) Amendment 31 to add the Outdoors for All Act to the bill, which codifies the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program. The ORLP program provides grants for outdoor recreational opportunities in urban and low-income cities across the nation. Representatives Brown (MD) Graves (LA) teamed up on bipartisan Amendment 35 for the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to ensure service-members and veterans have access to these public lands for outdoor recreation and wellness programs.


Representative Pingree’s (ME) Amendment 4 to include 31 miles of the York River in Maine in the National Park Service's Wild and Scenic River System also passed.


Of those amendments that were thankfully defeated was Amendment 54 brought forward by Representative Newhouse (WA) and Boebert (CO) that would have allowed for hydropower development on wild and scenic rivers. Representative Moore (UT) and Newhouse (WA) teamed up on Amendment 5 that was also defeated that would have given counties authority to formally approve wilderness areas. 


What's Next?


Once a bill has passed the House it then goes to the Senate. In the Senate the legislation will be taken up by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia. Currently the Senate is focused on confirmation hearings but we expect they will turn to legislation in the coming months. The Senate may decide to have hearings and potentially add other bills to the package. To maintain momentum, it is important to weigh in with your Senators and make your support of wild rivers, public lands, and outdoor recreation known


We know that President Biden supports the effort and issued a Statement of Administrative Policy stating that, “H.R. 803 puts in place protections for some of our nation’s most iconic natural and cultural resources and safeguards recreational opportunities for the benefit of current and future generations, while creating jobs and investing in the recreation economy.”


With the support of the whitewater paddling community and our partners in the outdoor recreation community, including Outdoor Alliance and The Conservation Alliance, we will be able to pass these bills into law.

Photo: Proposed Sitkum Wild and Scenic River, Wild Olympics; Credit: Nathaniel Wilson.

Thomas O'Keefe

3537 NE 87th St.

Seattle, WA 98115

Phone: 425-417-9012
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