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Omnibus Lands Bill Closes Access to Millions of Acres

President Obama last Monday signed into law an omnibus lands bill that cleared Congress following a contentious and protracted debate and some procedural sleight of hand. The bill (HR 146) sets aside two million acres in nine western states as protected wilderness, closing off further access for oil and natural gas development on public lands.

"This bill is a Herculean first step in President Obama's agenda for our open lands," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the signing of the bill in the East Room of the White House.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the chief sponsor of the bill, called it "landmark legislation [that] will ensure the protection of exceptional wilderness, historic sites, national parks and precious water resources for years to come."

It took two attempts in both the Senate and House before the Democrat-sponsored lands legislation finally cleared Congress and was sent to the president. Republicans Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma led the opposition to the bill.

The House passed the lands bill by 285-140 on March 25, about one week after the Senate, by 77-20, moved the omnibus measure for a second time (see NGI, March 30; March 23). The Senate refashioned the bill to help get it past procedural hurdles in the House.

The lands package combines more than 160 individual land measures, which create new wilderness designations, wild and scenic rivers, hiking trails, heritage areas, water projects and historic preservation initiatives.

The new law bars oil and gas drilling in a portion of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming. It also includes 92 National Wild and Scenic River designations covering 1,100 miles that would prohibit any pipeline or transmission crossing. The Taunton River in Massachusetts was among the rivers designated as wild and scenic, which poses another obstacle for the embattled Weaver's Cove liquefied natural gas terminal proposed for Fall River, MA.

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