updated 3/19/2009 3:13:59 PM ET 2009-03-19T19:13:59

The Senate on Thursday passed a long-delayed bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, from a California mountain range to more than 1,000 miles of rivers.

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The 77-20 vote sends the bill to the House, where final legislative approval could come as early as next week.

The Senate first approved the measure in January, but it was defeated last week in the House amid a partisan dispute over a plan to allow concealed, loaded guns in national parks.

The legislation — a package of nearly 170 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and Oregon's Mount Hood to 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.

Important conservation bill
Supporters called the legislation among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in decades.

"The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority," said Paul Spitler of The Wilderness Society. "These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis."

The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.

Critics have called the project a "road to nowhere." Backers 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.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, hailed the Idaho provision, which he has been seeking for eight years. The bill represents a compromise among a host of competing groups that have long disagreed over how to manage the rugged canyonland in southwestern Idaho.

"The people who worked on the Owyhee Initiative came from many groups and institutions that historically were battling head-to-head and instead were willing to work through things in a way that sets a tremendous example for how we should approach land management decisions and conflicts in this nation," Crapo said.

Bill praised as a compromise
Lawmakers from both parties told similar tales in other states, praising the bill as a compromise that sets an example for Congress. Most of the provisions in the bill were developed over several years.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held up the bill's final passage last year and again this year, arguing that it was unnecessary and would block energy development on millions of acres of federal land. The bill moved forward this week after Coburn was allowed to submit six amendments for approval. Five were defeated.

A sixth provision, softening a provision to impose criminal penalties for collecting some fossilized rocks on federal land, was included in the final bill.

Because of a parliamentary maneuver adopted in the Senate, the House is expected to take up the bill under a rule that blocks amendments or other motions to derail it. Republicans used the threat of an amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks to defeat the wilderness bill last week.

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

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