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Dear EarthTalk: I understand there is an effort underway to allow all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats and other motorized vehicles into wilderness areas, which would overturn a long-standing ban. What’s behind this?  -- Harry Schilling, Tempe, AZ

A new bill making its way through Congress, the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act (H.R. 2834), aims to make federally managed public lands across millions of acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property more accessible to hunters and anglers. And a key element of the bill calls for allowing motorized vehicles and equipment—as long as they are used for hunting or fishing—into these areas. Leading green groups are outraged because this would undermine 1964’s Wilderness Act which expressly bans motor vehicles on these last wild vestiges of untrammeled American land.

EarthTalkMotorizedWildernes
A key element of the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage
and Opportunities Act now making its way through Congress
would allow motorized vehicles and equipment into wilderness
areas, undermine 1964’s Wilderness Act which expressly bans
motor vehicles on these last wild vestiges of untrammeled
American land.  Credit: Comstock

According to the non-profit Wilderness Society, the motorized vehicles provision “would result in the destruction of the very wilderness values that millions of American hunters and anglers cherish.”

“The practical effect could be to open all designated wilderness areas to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats, chainsaws and other motorized vehicles and equipment…” warns Wilderness Society president William Meadows in a letter to Congress. He adds that buildings, towers and temporary roads could even be built in currently pristine stretches of wilderness if the proposed bill becomes law.

But what’s most troubling to Meadows and others is language in the bill saying that “any requirements imposed by [the Wilderness Act] shall be implemented only insofar as they facilitate or enhance the original primary purpose or purposes for which the federal public lands or land unit was established and do not materially interfere with or hinder such purpose or purposes.” Meadows fears this could be construed to allow road building, timber cutting, mining, oil and gas drilling and other development in our remaining wilderness areas.

Another beef environmentalists have with the bill is that it would exempt decisions made or actions taken with regard to hunting and fishing on federal lands from federal environmental review and public disclosure regulations established under 1969’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Wilderness Society reports that this part of H.R. 2834 would keep the public and concerned parties out of decisions to compromise the integrity of wilderness but also other types of protected lands.

First introduced in the house last September by Michigan Republican Dan Benishek (with 45 bi-partisan co-sponsors), H.R. 2834 made it through the House Natural Resources Committee within three months and is poised for a full House vote later this spring. If it passes there, the Senate will take up a companion version, S. 2066, sponsored by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. Depending on how it plays out, the bill could be on the President’s desk by the summer.

“Recreational fishing and hunting are important and vital recreational activities on our federal public lands,” concludes the Wilderness Society, “but the anti-Wilderness provisions of H.R. 2834 should not be allowed to become law.”

CONTACTS: H.R. 2834, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2834; Wilderness Society, www.wilderness.org.

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Dear EarthTalk: How do green groups feel about the new 2012 Farm Bill draft recently released by the Senate?             -- Roger Wheeler, Miami, FL

EarthTalk2012FarmBill
Some green groups, such as the Environmental
Working Group, applaud parts of the 2012 Farm
Bill that support healthy diets, organic farmers
and links between local growers and consumers.
But they are critical of provisions they say only
continue subsidies for highly profitable farms
while ignoring needed protections for wetlands,
grasslands and soil health.Credit: Stockbyte

Like so much of the legislation coming out of Washington, D.C., green groups are mixed on the new Farm Bill now making its way toward a floor vote. No doubt there are some conservation bright spots in the bill, but the question is: Are there enough and do they go far enough?

The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) doesn’t think so. “Unfortunately, the bill ... will do more harm than good,” says Craig Cox, an agriculture and natural resources expert at EWG. “It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses.” Cox is critical of the new bill for essentially replacing one subsidy to large successful farms (those which need it least) with another: “Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits.” He calls replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program “a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.”

On the conservation side, Cox is dismayed that the draft bill fails to address “the impact of fence-row to fence-row agricultural production, which is putting unprecedented pressure on our land, water and wildlife.” EWG would like to see the bill include language forcing farmers to protect critical wetlands and grasslands, not to mention soil health in general, in exchange for getting the insurance subsidies. “In combination, a new entitlement program, unlimited secret insurance subsidies, cuts to conservation programs and high commodity prices will create powerful incentives to plow up fragile wetlands and grasslands and erase many of the environmental gains made by agriculture in recent years,” says Cox.

On the plus side, Cox applauds provisions in the bill that create and expand programs supporting healthy diets and organic farmers, as well as those that seek to expand links between local farmers and consumers. “We also support efforts to reform conservation programs to get more conservation bang for the buck,” he concludes, adding that EWG hopes to work with legislators on strengthening the bill’s conservation and nutrition provisions, and to place sensible limits on subsidies for highly-profitable farms.

Another respected non-profit, American Farmland Trust (AFT), is more bullish overall on the Senate’s draft of the bill. The group likes the fact that funding for conservation programs is maintained at all, given the sour economic climate and resistance to put funds into non-emergency programs. AFT also praises the bill for its commitment to support farm and ranch land protection through a new permanent Agricultural Land Easement option which will help protect working lands and keep them in agricultural use.

“Our nation has a critical need to protect farm and ranch land,” says AFT president Jon Scholl, adding that the U.S. lost farm and ranch acreage equal to the size of Indiana over the last 30 years. “Permanent conservation easements protect agricultural land from development, safeguard local agricultural economies and help farmers and ranchers transition their land to the next generation.”

A vote on the final version of the bill could come as early as this summer.

CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org, AFT, www.farmland.org.

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