An environmental group, PennEnvironment, released a report last week that claimed millions of acres of national forest across the country are at risk of development if three congressional measures are signed into law.
While the bills are unlikely to be passed during this session of Congress, what would those changes mean for the Allegheny National Forest?
Stressing a need to be vigilant, recognizing that these issues could appear in future legislation in subsequent sessions of Congress, Friends of Allegheny Wilderness Executive Director Kirk Johnson noted that the current Congress is the most "overtly hostile" Congress toward those who have an interest in preserving wilderness areas.
For example, he cited the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, H.R. 1581, which is "a problem" for the ANF. He explained that the measure would remove regulations that prohibit road construction in certain areas of the ANF, including the Tracy Ridge and Cornplanter (3,000 acres) areas as well as the Allegheny National Recreation Area (7,000 acres) and a 6,000-acre tract of land along the Clarion River.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-5) is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1581. In an opinion piece published in the Centre Daily Times last September and posted on his website, Thompson said that the bill will "allow for greater access to our public lands by releasing acres that have had more restrictions levied upon them as a result of being part of a wilderness designation."
Johnson said that Thomson was "incorrect" to imply that areas not suitable for wilderness can't be designated wilderness in the future. He added that the roadless rule is often the only protection for these lands and that removing the rule opens the land up development which is "inconsistent with wilderness values."
"We still want that roadless protection," Johnson said.
PennEnvironment also cited H.R. 2834 and H.R. 1505 as pieces of legislation that threaten national forests.
According to Johnson, H.R. 2834 includes a "back-handed component" that would allow motorized vehicle use in all areas of national forests. The measure "does good things for hunting and fishing," Johnson noted but, given some provisions within it is "completely unsupportable" by wilderness groups. He added that Sen. John Tester of Montana has put forward a bill that includes all of the favorable measures to provide hunting and fishing opportunities but pulls the motorized vehicle provision.
H.R. 2578, which encompasses H.R. 1505 and was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, would grant the Department of Homeland Security authority over all federal lands within 100 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders. Noting that the entire ANF falls within that designation, if passed, Johnson said that Homeland Security "doesn't have to adhere" to the federal land guidelines currently in place. "The House proponents are looking for ways to undermine" wilderness, Johnson noted, explaining that the bill would also allow Homeland Security to fly unmanned surveillance drones over all of the fedetal territory within that 100-mile designation.
According to govtrack.us, a private entity that tracks congressional legislation, H.R. 2834 is still in committee and H.R. 1581 has been referred to committee but has been given only a four percent chance of gaining final passage.
The 510,00-acre Allegheny National Forest has approximately 9,000 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness, 8,663 acres that make up the Hickory Creek Wilderness and 368 acres made up of the seven islands dubbed the Allegheny Islands Wilderness.