updated 3/11/2009 6:21:33 PM ET 2009-03-11T22:21:33

The House on Wednesday defeated a bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness — the victim of a renewed Republican push to allow concealed, loaded weapons in national parks.

A majority of House members supported the wilderness bill, but the measure was defeated because it did not receive the needed two-thirds vote. The vote was 282-144 in favor — two votes short of approval.

Supporters said the bill was brought up under a special rule — which severely restricts amendments — because majority Democrats were afraid that Republicans would introduce an amendment allowing guns in parks. With dozens of Democrats supporting gun rights, such a measure stood a good chance of passage, advocates and staff aides in both parties said.

A similar maneuver by Republicans — to repeal most of the District of Columbia's gun-control laws — has jeopardized legislation giving the district a vote in the House of Representatives. The measure remains stalled as House leaders ponder their next move.

Advocates said the wilderness bill also may languish.

Democratic leaders "are afraid of any motion on guns, frankly," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness, an advocacy group that has pushed for the wilderness bill for more than a year.

The gun issue has emboldened Republicans, Matz and others said.

"They want to obstruct anything and everything apparently," Matz said of GOP leaders in the House. "They don't care that some of their members want to get something done" on wilderness.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the defeated bill would have cost up to $10 billion and blocked oil and gas development on millions of acres of federal property.

"This bill would have locked-up critical resources that are essential for" increased energy production and lower gas prices, Boehner said.

The dispute over guns in parks reaches back to the Bush administration, which issued a last-minute order allowing loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges shortly before leaving office. The rule, which took effect Jan. 9, overturns 25-year policy that allowed guns in parks only if they were unloaded, or dismantled and stored.

The Obama administration is reviewing the rule, but many lawmakers from both parties support a measure making the Bush rule law.

Majority Democrats were sufficiently worried about the gun issue that they agreed to amend the wilderness bill to clarify that it would not impose new restrictions on hunting, fishing or trapping on federal land. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., was a victory for the National Rifle Association, which also sought the rule change on guns in parks.

But even with the Altmire amendment, the wilderness measure fell two votes short. The NRA did not take a position on the overall bill, said Andrew Arulanandam, the group's director of public affairs.

Democratic leaders vowed to bring the wilderness bill back, but did not say when or in what form.

"There are a lot of good bills, sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, contained in (the lands bill) that deserve passage," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "We will continue to determine the best course of action to advance these measures."

The Senate has already approved the wilderness bill, one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in 25 years. The 1,200-page bill — a collection of about 170 individual 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 have gained protections.

The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to construct a 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 would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., denounced the bill as a "monster piece of legislation" that would criminalize collecting rocks on federal land, among other problems.

Democrats disputed that and said the bill was among the most important conservation measures debated in Congress in many years.

When headlines read that banks are failing, "it's important for Americans to know that our national parks are still beautiful, our national battlefields are still sacred and our national rivers are still wild and scenic," Rahall said.

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

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