Bills to “give away” public lands move forward despite harms to wildlife and water

Congressman McCarthy’s Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act seeks to give away some of the last best places on our public lands, and allow private industrial development to move forward in these valuable areas.  The bill would reverse protections on up to 55 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) in National Forests and 6.7 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs).

However, a timely report from the Geos Institute shows that there is a great deal of value in protecting unroaded areas, like IRAs and WSAs, throughout our public lands.  The report indicates that the roadless areas in our national forests alone are responsible for approximately $490 million in water purification services.  These benefits go beyond the dollar value of clean water – they provide healthy aquatic ecosystems and vital habitat for endangered and imperiled species.

The Tongass National Forest is threatened by a new Alaska-specific bill.

Despite these benefits, McCarthy’s bill to undo protections on as much as 60 million acres of our public lands has been scheduled for a hearing this Tuesday, and it will be interesting to find out what arguments bill supporters use to try and explain away the vast reach of the bill.  No doubt their primary message will be that lands currently designated as Roadless and Wilderness Study Areas are “locked up” and cannot be used by industry.  This argument truly misses the mark, as I’ve discussed before, and as the Geos report indicates regarding water, just one of many valuable services provided by undeveloped lands.  Defenders of Wildlife has developed a Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act fact sheet with additional information on its potential impacts, as have some of our partners.

While McCarthy’s bill is attacking Wilderness Study and Inventoried Roadless Areas nationwide, some members of the Congressional delegation from Alaska have put forth their own, Alaska-specific bill that would exempt the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests from roadless protections.  This means that all of the designated roadless areas in Alaska would be released and be on the table for development.  Roadless areas in Alaska cover about 15 million acres and contain some of the largest intact areas of old growth temperate rainforest on the planet.  The radical move of exposing these vast areas to development would deliver a setback to the Tongass National Forest where a transition from damaging and controversial roadless and old growth logging toward more sustainable economic development promises to support communities and maintain the healthy and unique ecosystems of southeast Alaska.

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Addie Haughey is the Federal Lands Associate for Defenders of Wildlife. Addie works within Defenders’ Federal Lands Program in Washington, DC to advocate for wildlife on our National Forests and on other public lands.

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