As you read this, Cal French has should be just about finished walking across California.
At the age of 74, the retired high-school teacher and Paso Robles resident is a 45-year member of the Sierra Club and longtime member of the Santa Lucia Chapter’s executive committee, with a shelf full of national Sierra Club awards for his conservation work. He could rest on his laurels. But two months ago, he decided he wanted to make a statement. He would take seven weeks to walk across California—from the Colorado River to Morro Bay—crossing the lands of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, the Wind Wolves Preserve, Mojave National Preserve, and the Carrizo Plain to call attention to the need for protected wilderness lands.
“The public needs to know what a wonderful treasure has been saved,” he said. “It is through this personal connection with the land across about 530 miles that I hope to speak for the necessity of preserving and protecting what wildness remains.”
Cal set out on his 500-mile hike on March 20. As he walked, his Congressional Representative, Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), decided to bring the idea of American wilderness to an end.
On April 29, the Tribune reported that Rep. McCarthy had introduced the bill known as H.R. 1581, “the Wilderness and Roadless Area Relief Act,” but the Tribune got the name wrong. The last thing H.R. 1581 would provide is relief for wilderness areas, so the goof was pretty funny. But the real name of the bill —the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act—is even funnier, in a gallows humor kind of way. The release that the bill would provide for wilderness and roadless areas is the release of death.
H.R. 1581 would open more than 70 million acres of wildlands to development. It repeals the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule and rescinds Interior Secretarial Order 3310, issued last year to reinstate the Bureau of Land Management’s Wilderness Study Areas program, terminated in 2003 by George Bush’s scandal-plagued Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton. In national forests, roadless areas protect the drinking water of 60 million Americans.
Rep. McCarthy’s bill would effectively end the designation of wilderness lands and throw them open to road construction, motorized recreation, cattle grazing, mining, logging, and oil and gas extraction.
Environmental groups are not the only ones who have a problem with this. Two months before McCarthy introduced his wilderness-killing bill, two outdoor industry trade groups, the Conservation Alliance and Outdoor Industry Association, wrote to the House Natural Resources Committee in support of Order 3310, the wildlands policy that H.R. 1581 proposes to repeal. They wished to remind the Committee that “Outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, and supports nearly 6.5 million jobs across our country.” That represents a growth rate of 6 percent per year, according to OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer, in the depths of a recession. McCarthy’s bill would neatly nip that in the bud.
McCarthy’s hometown newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian, roasted him, beginning an April 18 editorial, “The rumbling sound you may have noticed coming from the general vicinity of the Sierra Nevada is Teddy Roosevelt rolling over in his grave,” and noting that McCarthy and his Republican colleagues are seeking to tear down Roosevelt’s greatest legacy by expressing “full-on contempt for the idea that the West is a special place worthy of special treatment. And this isn’t a back-bench catcall—this is the House Republican leadership, signaling clear hostility to wilderness designations, both past and future.”
The Heartland Foundation has attacked Interior Secretarial Order 3310, calling it an “executive power grab” and “an enormous leap in the powers of the executive branch to control land use.” The Heartland Foundation is supported by Exxon, Commonwealth Edison, BP Amoco, the National Association of Realtors, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, etc. You get the picture.
The Sierra Club and 43 other regional and national environmental groups representing millions of Americans pointed out to Congress last February that, in fact, Secretarial Order 3310 “reverses the flawed, unilateral decision by former Secretary Norton that affected millions of acres of public land and effectively silenced the voices of millions of Americans. By issuing this Order, the Administration recognizes its legal requirement to comply with existing law regarding the identification and protection of wilderness quality lands. Furthermore, it restores the voice of the American people, who again have a public process to participate in that encourages and supports open dialogue about wilderness on our public lands.”
Two years ago, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope said, “Wilderness has never been more important. In order to help wildlife survive global warming, we need to safeguard as much habitat as possible. We also need to protect the corridors that connect these refuges, the migration routes that will allow bears and bighorn sheep to travel and seek food and safer ground, and will allow plants like Joshua trees to grow in new places as their traditional habitat changes.”
That’s what Cal French’s 530-mile hike is about. H.R. 1581, on the other hand—sponsored by Rep. McCarthy and 25 of his House Republican colleagues—looks like one more example of jaw-dropping Republican overreach in a season of overreaching. The Republican Congressional majority seems compelled to press for wildly unpopular measures that trigger outrage from the majority of the American people.
“These House Republicans apparently won’t be content until every acre is logged and paved,” said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who notes that millions of Americans have consistently voiced support for protecting these public lands. “Shame on them for trying to undo the will of the people.”
We have a question for Representative McCarthy’s constituents, the voters of the 22nd Congressional District, as they contemplate their Congressman’s anti-environment, anti-democracy, anti-jobs bill. It’s a question they might want to start asking themselves. Exactly whose interests does their representative seek to serve?
Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments via the opinion editor at email@example.com.