By Erik Fernandez of Portland, Oregon. Erik is the wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild.
Today marks an historic day for Oregon wilderness. The first major statewide wilderness bill in 25 years passed the US House of Representatives and protects Oregon icons Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge. The plan also protects the Soda Mountain and Copper Salmon areas in SW Oregon as well as Spring Basin and Badlands in central Oregon. Having worked on this proposal for over six years, it's great to see all the necessary legislative hoops have been jumped through and once the President signs it into law it will be finally, finally, final.
Last week the Senate rolled "Dr. No", Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) by a 77-20 vote. Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Jeff Merkley's leadership helped get it done in the Senate. Today, Congresman Earl Blumenauer and Congressman Peter DeFazio moved the bill through the House with an overwhelming majority of 285 to 140.
As the lead organization working on protecting Oregon wilderness, Oregon Wild is thrilled to see protections for the wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, and recreational opportunities finalized. Wilderness protection for our natural treasures is what makes Oregon a great place to live work and raise a family.
This victory carries with it a large degree of personal fulfillment as well. I started drawing lines on the map for this proposal in 1997 as a volunteer, and we really started pushing for protections for Mount Hood and the Gorge in 2003. I’ve taken hundreds of Oregonians up miles and miles of trail to share with them this special place in our back yard. To forever safeguard these areas for future generations fills me with pride that it is difficult to adequately express.
Still, even with these added protections, which are expected to be finalized by the House and the new President in the coming weeks, Oregon still has a wilderness problem. Currently only 4% of Oregon is protected as wilderness. Compare that to Washington (10%), California (15%)...and even the liberal bastion of Idaho which has protected 8% of the state as wilderness. Needless to say, Oregon is way behind when it comes to protecting our natural treasures. It's very encouraging to see Congress starting to correct this imbalance. Senator Wyden deserves significant credit for his leadership in moving this quickly through the new senate. Congressman Blumenauer has also spent years working on this legislation and played a key role in the development of this plan and its passage.
When momentous legislation is passed, it is always appropriate to look back on what came before and to think seriously about what lies ahead. This bill represents the first major wilderness protection in Oregon since 1984. However, the 202,000 acres preserved in this bill are dwarfed by the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act that protected 800,000 acres of Oregon's backcountry. And that bill was championed by two Republican Senators and signed by Ronald Reagan!
In looking to the future, a greener Congress and a President searching for change bode well for public lands protection. We should all be excited to work to correct Oregon’s wilderness imbalance (I mean, seriously people, Idaho’s gonna beat us?). Additional wilderness protections in places like the Rogue River, the Siskiyou Wild Rivers and the Umpqua River rise to the top when we think about places in Oregon that should be treasured as Wilderness.
As the winter weather abates and the sun shines this week, maybe take a moment to explore Oregon’s soon-to-be-wilderness areas, and think about future Oregonians doing the same.