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The Planet

Public Outrage Stalls Congress' Wildlands Grab

The Planet, October 1995, Volume 2, number 7

by B. J. Bergman

Congress' War on the Environment, public lands division, took to the road is summer. Thanks largely to the organizing efforts of Sierra Club volunteers and staff, the tour was a bust.

We're on the front line of defending the idea of wilderness and national parks," said Minnesotan Ginny Yingling, who was instrumental not only in rallying Midwesterners to the cause, but in arranging their transportation to a spirited hearing in remote International Falls, near the Canadian border. To Yingling, chair of the North Star Chapter's public lands committee, and other Club leaders, congressional hearings in Minnesota and Utah were intended as reconnaissance missions for anti-environmentalists.

'These are test cases," said Lawson LeGate, the Club's regional representative in Utah. "They're the first steps in destroying the integrity of our national park and wilderness systems."

But if anti-environmentalists weren't quite stopped in their tracks, their momentum was slowed down considerably. From International Falls to Salt Lake City, members of Congress--who may have believed they had a mandate to sell off parks and seen wildlands to development--discovered that U.S. citizens not only want their wilderness, but are willing to fight save it. They also learned, to their dismay, that Americans have gotten wise to the true meaning of "wise use."

Spearheaded by Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), Congress' campaign against public lands began in earnest on two major fronts. In Minnesota, Hansen was in attendance at a field healing on efforts to open Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to intensive recreation and development [see alert, July/August [1995] Planet]. In Utah, he conducted hearings on a so-called wilderness bill--a collaboration between his state's congressional delegation and its development interests--that conservationists have dubbed "the Utah Wilderness Elimination Act."

Club activists helped ensure that congressional field hearings were packed with opponents of the Utah delegation's bill, which, said LeGate, "is brimming with violations of the wilderness ideal" as expressed in the 1964 Wilderness Act. But Utahns took their opposition a step further. They not only showed up in force at Hansen's hearings, but also held their own. Under the auspices of the Utah Wilderness Coalition--comprising some 35 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club--about 400 state residents turned out at a "citizens' hearing" to voice their support for America's Redrock Wilderness Act, H.R. 1500, by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y). in stark contrast to the Utah delegation's bill--which offers weak protection for just 1.8 million acres of wildlands, and releases millions more to mining, oil drilling and other forms of destruction -- Hinchey's would designate as wilderness the full 5.7 million acres identified in the Coalition's "citizens' proposal."

Rudy Lukez, chair of the Club's Utah Chapter, called the legislation by Hansen, Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Utah Republicans "the first big anti-wilderness bill" introduced in the 104th Congress. If approved, he said, "it would fundamentally damage the National Wilderness System."

In Minnesota, activists are doing everything they can to make sure anti-wilderness measures never get that far. With help from Midwest staff director Carl Zichella and D.C. staffer Ann Riley, Yingling led the charge against efforts to loosen restrictions on snowmobiles, houseboats and other forms of motorized recreation designed to make Voyageurs more economically productive."

"The Wise Use movement is using Voyageurs as a test case to see how far they can go in dismantling national parks," said Yingling. Faced with widespread public opposition to the idea of selling off the parks, she said, "They backed off and said, 'Okay, we'll give you wilderness, but it's not going to be real wilderness, we'll allow more motorized use and hunting.' The real value that those lands were set aside for is totally lost."

As the hearing date approached, Rep. Rod Crams (R-Minn.) and others "whipped up the Wise Use movement to a lather," Zichella said. Environmentalists, meanwhile, were setting up phone hanks, generating letters and phone calls to Congress, working the media, and making sure wilderness proponents could get to the joint House4ienate field hearing some six hours by car from the Twin Cities. There, with strong backing from Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), they sent Congress the unmistakable message that wild means wild.

"Neither the hearing organizers nor their Wise Use backers were prepared for the number of wilderness supporters or the intensity of their feelings," said Marvin Roberson, chair of the Club's Wild Planet Strategy Team. For those unable to attend the hearing, Club activists staged a noontime rally outside Grams' office in Anoka. "We made a lot of noise and got a lot of press coverage," said Yingling. A second hearing on Voyageurs is planned for the Twin Cities area in late September or early October.

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