The House voted Friday to cordon off nearly three million acres of Western land in the name of environmental protection, overriding Republicans who called it a “massive land grab” that will kill jobs, increase wildfire danger and reduce access to public lands.
The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, approved by a vote of 227 to 200, combined eight Democrat-sponsored bills to create another 1.49 million aces of federal wilderness, including more than 1,000 river miles, and withdraw 1.2 million acres from new oil and mining claims.
The package affecting four states—Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington—will ensure that “iconic landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Colorado’s Thompson Divide are permanently protected from the irreversible threats posed by extraction,” said the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Protecting our environment is not a matter of choice or political preference,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the committee. “It’s the only path forward for our country and our way of life.”
The bill dovetails with President Biden’s so-called 30x30 pledge aimed at conserving 30% of U.S. land—an area twice the size of Texas—and 30% of coastal seas by 2030.
Included in the package was Mr. Grijalva’s Grand Canyon Protection Act, which bans future mining claims around the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona without touching existing claims.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, called the bill “critical to ensuring that the lands, water, wildlife, and people of the region are protected from the harmful and toxic effects of uranium mining.”
The package passed over the opposition of Republicans who argued that the federal government already struggles to manage its vast acreage—nearly half of Western lands are federally owned—citing the National Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog.
Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said in a floor speech that the bill would declare an area the size of Delaware “a wilderness area, off limits to forest management, timber harvesting, and even many forms of public recreation.”
“An untended forest is like an untended garden,” Mr. McClintock said.” It will grow until it chokes itself to death and succumbs to disease, pestilence and ultimately catastrophic wildfire. These restrictions have abandoned our forests to neglect and produced the paradox of a severe national lumber shortage while the government sits on vast timber reserves.”
He warned that the restrictions would “create water shortages in some of the most water-abundant regions of our country.”