updated 1/15/2009 5:30:27 PM ET 2009-01-15T22:30:27

The Senate on Thursday voted to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness and allow Alaska to build an airport access road through a wildlife refuge.

The 73-21 vote moves Congress closer to one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in the past 25 years. The legislation heads to the House, where approval is expected.

The measure — a collection of about 160 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range to Oregon's Mount Hood, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections.

Controversial road project
The bill also would let Alaska construct the road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would give the state a seven-mile easement through the refuge. In exchange, the state is expected to transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.

Critics call the project a "road to nowhere." Supporters say the road is needed for residents of a remote village on the Bering Sea who now use a hovercraft to reach an airport and hospital.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the lands package was one of the most sweeping conservation measures in decades.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said there were great benefits for the West, where the federal government owns huge chunks of more than a dozen states. Murkowski sponsored the Alaska land swap, which she said would help the 800 residents of King Cove, Alaska, gain access to airports and a hospital, even in bad weather.

Environmentalists lamented the Alaska road, but said the overall good done by the bill far outweighs any negative impact of the road.

"In a perfect world, we wish it weren't in there. However we don't operate in a perfect world," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness, an advocacy group.

Matz said the overall bill sent a clear message that Congress considers wilderness protection a worthwhile investment.

"Wilderness is a much-needed antidote to these difficult times and a priceless gift to the future generations of Americans who will be able to enjoy these beautiful places just as they are today," he said.

Critic: Drilling will be blocked
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the bill's chief opponent, said it was a land-grab that would lock up acreage that could be used for future development such as oil and gas drilling.

"We're going to trample on property rights like we haven't in decades," said Coburn, who also decried the bill's estimated $4 billion cost.

Coburn's objections scuttled the bill last year, and his filibuster threat led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to call the Senate into a rare session last Sunday for a preliminary vote.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he was working to secure an "expeditious" House vote and get the bill quickly to Barack Obama, who takes office Tuesday.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments