Nation's wilderness study areas, including Bodie, in local crosshairs Tuesday

Say it isn’t so.

After more than a decade of divisive debate over the fate of Mono County’s federal Wilderness Study Areaswith no clean solution, the argument comes back again next week.

A Bridgeport community group has put a resolution on the county supervisor’s agenda Tuesday that will ask the supervisors to support releasing some of the county — and the nation’s — wilderness study areas from the federal protection they now have.

In doing so, the resolution (see side bar) will also ask the supervisors to “actively support and advocate for” a bill sponsored by California Rep. Kevin McCarthy and co-sponsored by Mono County’s Congressman Buck McKeon. It’s called H.R. 1581 or “The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act."

This bill asks Congress to release all of the country’s Bureau of Land Management-owned Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) that have not been recommended to be wilderness from protection as potential wildernesses. It does the same thing for the U.S. Forest Service “Roadless Areas” that have not been recommended to be wilderness.

Included in the bill are local areas such as the Bodie Hills, the Volcanic Tablelands and Fish Slough north of Bishop and some 60 million acres of land across the country that is now protected to some degree.
Removing the protection of these areas would allow them to be accessible to mining, off-road vehicle use and other uses prohibited in true wilderness.

HR 1581 was first proposed by California House Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Buck McKeon in May and is now moving through assorted committees in Washington D. C.

Tim Hansen is the county supervisor for the part of Mono County that extends from Lee Vining to the Nevada border. He said he knows the resolution and the bill it supports will be controversial, but it’s his job to represent his constituents.

“The fact is that the Bridgeport RPAC (Bridgeport Regional Advisory Committee) wanted to support H.R. 1581 and this is the way they wanted to do it,” he said Tuesday. “I know people will think this is about mining, but that’s not what it is about. It’s about allowing multiple use in the Bodie Hills and other WSA’s that have already been recommended as not suitable for wilderness.”

Hansen also said there are many private property owners in the Bodie Hills that are worried about the impact if the Bodie Hills WSA was made into a true wilderness.

Although the Bodie Hills are not the only WSA in Mono County, it was a proposal early this year by a mining company to remove the WSA protection from the hills in order to smooth the way for exploring and mining for gold. That brought the issue back to local attention, after nearly a decade of silence on the WSA issue. At a meeting late this winter, hundreds of residents on both sides of the issue showed up to speak before the supervisors and the gold mine company during a an emotional and often rancorous debate that stretched far into the night.

Although District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard suggested a compromise at that time that would split the Bodie Hills into part wilderness and part multiple use, the end result was a lot of venting by residents and no action on the part of the supervisors. A bill sponsored by McKeon that would clear the Bodie Hills of wilderness protection also went nowhere and the supervisors left the issue once again in the hands of Congress.

Hap Hazard said Tuesday that he wishes it had stayed that way.

“I don’t believe there is any way they can move anything forward,” he said, noting that President Obama and California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein will not support the House bill. “All this will do is continue to divide our local citizenry.”

Sally Miller, the local representative of the national Wilderness Society, said that if the board agrees to support this resolution they are “handing the mining company a gift on a golden platter.”

“The Bodie Hills are just an example of the problem with this bill,” she said. “The McCarthy bill is the greatest attack on the nation’s wildlands in history.”

Stacy Corless, the director for Friends of the Inyo, has also been working toward protecting the Bodie Hills, as well as other local potential wilderness areas. “We hope that the supervisors will realize this is a local and national issue, and listen to the residents and visitors who have told them repeatedly that the Bodie Hills are special and worth protecting,” she said.

“Keep the Wilderness Study Areas in their current condition and let’s work together to form a shared vision for the Bodie Hills that balances conservation and sustainable economic growth.”