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Congress Approves Wilderness Bill Setting Aside 2 Million Acres

WASHINGTON -- Congress on Wednesday set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness -- from California's Sierra Nevada mountains to the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

The legislation is on its way to President Barack Obama for his likely signature.

The House approved the bill, 285-140, the final step in a long legislative road that began last year.

The vote came two weeks after the House rejected the bill amid a partisan dispute over gun rights. The measure was brought up again in the Senate and approved last week, setting up Wednesday's vote.

The bill -- a collection of nearly 170 separate measures -- would be one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in a quarter-century. It would confer the government's highest level of protection on land in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Supporters called the bill landmark legislation that will strengthen the national park system, restore national forests, preserve wild and scenic rivers, protect battlefields and restore balance to the management of public lands.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a "land grab" that would block energy development on vast swaths of federal land.

"After nearly a decade during which our parks were taken for granted and our range lands were scarred by a spider-web of roads and (drilling) well pads," the lands bill "represents a new dawn for America's heritage and American values," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and other Republicans complained that the measure would lock up millions of acres of land that could be explored for energy and used for other development.

"Our nation can't afford to shut down the creation of jobs for jobless Americans, and we can't afford to become even more dependent on foreign sources of energy," Hastings said.

The bill "even locks up federal lands from renewable energy production, including wind and solar," he said.

Hastings and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to allow visitors to national parks to carry concealed, loaded weapons. A federal judge last week struck down a Bush administration rule allowing loaded guns in parks and wildlife refuges.

Because of a parliamentary rule adopted in the Senate, the House took up the bill under a rule that blocked amendments.

Land to be protected in the bill ranges from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and Oregon's Mount Hood to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections. The proposals would expand wilderness designation -- which blocks nearly all development -- into areas that now are not protected.

The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.