Today the House of Representatives approved a bill that calls for protection of some of America’s finest natural landscapes. The Senate has already approved the bill, which is expected to be signed by President Obama.
Two expanses of wild lands that will be protected are still in their natural state due to past efforts by Earthjustice attorneys. One is the Mineral King valley in the southern Sierra Nevada of California. The other is the Wyoming Range in western Wyoming.
Under today’s legislation, Mineral King will be protected as a federally designated wilderness. Wilderness designation precludes road building and motorized vehicle travel. The Wyoming Range will be protected from oil and gas development. In both of these areas, without prior action by Earthjustice, there would have been little to save.
In the 1970s Earthjustice went to the US Supreme Court to protect Mineral King from being turned into a ski resort by the Disney company. In the course of litigating this case, key legal rulings were made that recognized the right of average Americans to go to court when their public lands are threatened by development.
“Earthjustice’s work to keep the Mineral King valley in its natural condition not only saved Mineral King but also established the public’s right to use the courts to defend our public natural areas,” said Tom Turner of Earthjustice. “Today Congress brought the issue full circle by granting permanent protection to Mineral King. Never again will Americans have to worry this natural jewel will be bulldozed.”
Similarly, without the work of Earthjustice the Wyoming Range today would be widely leased to energy companies for oil and gas development. The Wyoming Range is an arm of the Rocky Mountains located south of Jackson Hole in western Wyoming. It contains the largest tract of roadless land in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Hunting, fishing, recreation, and associated travel brought over $20 million to the state in 2004. Under the omnibus lands bill, about 1.2 million acres of this national forest land will now be protected from future mineral leasing with only a negligible affect on oil and gas production in the region.
The Wyoming Range was threatened when the Bush-Cheney administration moved to open 175,000 acres of national forest lands to massive oil and gas development. The administration’s leasing proposal included 90,000 acres of pristine national forest roadless areas that provide key habitat for numerous wildlife species, including elk and Canada lynx.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso penned a key letter warning such a move violated the law and that the administration should expect to see Earthjustice in court if they proceeded. The Earthjustice letter served to slow the administration until widespread bipartisan support for protection emerged across the state, which eventually stopped plans to develop the roadless areas. The administration next tried to lease and develop about 44,000 acres in a portion of the Wyoming Range enjoyed by the public as prime hunting lands. Earthjustice again pushed back and won a key ruling from the Department of Interior’s Board of Lands Appeals halting this development and setting the stage for protection of this spectacular mountain landscape.