Proposed Legislation Could Undermine the Wilderness Act and the Protection of Wilderness

On the surface, two proposed pieces of legislation appear unrelated to wilderness protection. The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act seeks “to protect and enhance opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing and shooting.” The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act was designed to provide “operational control” for border security on federal public and tribal lands within 100 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders. But wilderness activists say both bills would undermine the heart of wilderness protection in the United States. Places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park could be opened to development and habitat destruction without environmental review. And what’s more, both bills passed the House of Representatives with minimal protest.


So far, the fate of the bills in the Senate and their eventual passage into law is unclear. Kevin Proescholdt is Conservation Director for Wilderness Watch, an advocacy group based out of Montana. He has a long history with the Friends of the Boundary Waters and understands the implications of both bills well. Proescholdt visited Washington D.C. at the end of June to make U.S. Senators aware of the bills’ hidden implications, and rising opposition to their passage. He says the Senate appears reluctant to address the bills individually, “but the more likely scenario is that they get attached to another bill.” He and other wilderness activists are working hard to keep that from happening.

The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act (HR 4089)

In April, six out of eight Minnesota representatives to the House voted for the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act; only Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison voted against it. Proescholdt thinks that in some cases the support may have resulted from an eagerness to support sportsmen and a failure to recognize the bill’s hidden implications. Without specifically referencing the Wilderness Act of 1964 by name, language in the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act appears to redefine certain aspects of land management in wilderness areas.

The 1964 Act, which set the precedent for wilderness protections in the United States, prohibits uses like permanent roads except “as necessary to meet the minimum requirements” of the area as a wilderness. In the Boundary Waters, that includes things like portage trails and camp sites. The Act also states that there shall be no temporary roads, no motorized vehicles or motorboats, no landing of aircraft or other mechanical transportation. Legislative compromises specific to the Boundary Waters do allow for some motorized use, but under the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act that could significantly expand. Wording in the Act appears to directly contradict the Wilderness Act:

The provision of opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting, and the conservation of fish and wildlife to provide sustainable use recreational opportunities on designated wilderness areas on federal public lands shall constitute measures necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the wilderness area.

Legal analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a bi-partisan research arm of the Library of Congress, showed that the last part of the excerpt is almost a direct quote from the Wilderness Act. A memo from CRS Legislative Attorney Kristina Alexander said, “The language of Section 104(e)(1) would appear to change the meaning of minimum requirements in the Wilderness Act, by making the term minimum to appear to allow any activity related to hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation.”

The memo went on to explain that additional language in the bill appears to “obviate” the purpose of the Wilderness Act by saying that wilderness values would apply “only to the extent that they did not conflict with other land management statuses, including wildlife conservation.” And while wildlife conservation might sound like a good thing, Proescholdt explained that would give Federal and State wildlife conservation managers the ability to make on-the-ground changes without environmental review.

The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act (HR 1505)

The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act was introduced to the House of Representatives by Representative Rob Bishop [R-UT] “To prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands, and for other purposes.” In short, within 100 miles of the border it exempts Border Control from 16 environmental, public health and safety laws on Federal public and tribal lands—including the Wilderness Act.

“The Department of Homeland security could do pretty much anything they wanted within 100 miles of the border, including the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park,” Preoscholdt said. That could include things like roads, walls, and surveillance towers, and they could do it without environmental review because they would be exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act as well.

Opponents to the bill argue that it is unnecessary to ensure homeland security. In April 2011, Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitello even testified that Border Patrol doesn’t want or need the bill to do its job.

Likelihood of Passing

Both bills are so outlandish, it has been hard for some northern Minnesotans to see them as a real threat—even those who could be most affected by them. BWCAW outfitter Bill Hansen, of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, believes they’re symptomatic of the way Congress has been operating in recent years. “Both of these bills are spurious political ploys with no real chance of acceptance by the American people,” he says. “Politicians are making ridiculous political points rather than solving real problems, and the scary thing is that sometimes they get through if they get attached to another bill.”

Proescholdt agrees that such a scenario is the only likely way either bill would pass the Senate. “It doesn’t appear from the visits we made [in Washington D.C.] a couple weeks ago that the Senate is eager to consider the bills,” he says. But a recent skirmish over the Farm Bill does raise concerns that Senate Republicans could try to attach it to other legislation. When the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act was introduced as an amendment to the Farm Bill without the language undermining the Wilderness Act, a competing amendment was introduced that did. The amendments weren’t allowed to stand due to their dueling nature but it did demonstrate that some members of the Senate are actively seeking ways to pass the bill.

“You can expect more of that kind of skirmishing and looking for other legislative vehicles,” Proescholdt said. So he and other wilderness advocates like the Wilderness Society won’t rest easy until the legislative session is over and the next Congress comes in. “It almost seems like a fantasy how bad these bills are, it seems almost beyond belief, but I’m afraid it’s true. So we’re trying to get the word out to as many Senate offices as we can and let them know there is a lot of the opposition to these bills. Hopefully they will die and never get attached to another bill.”

To help raise awareness about the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act and the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, contact your State Senators.

By Alissa Johnson

This article appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Wilderness News >

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