Amid Devastation, Glimmers of Hope

05/10/2010 11:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, while we witnessed the first oil hit the Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge from the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill, we also witnessed glimmers of hope for our public lands. In five short days, five milestones for wilderness protection were achieved.

In Nevada, Colorado and California, four proposals for wilderness designation leapt over important preliminary hurdles. And in South Dakota, a proposal to create the first National Forest Grassland in the country climbed all the way to the Senate.

In Idaho, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Representatives Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick introduced a new version of the Boulder-White Clouds legislation in the Senate and House, respectively. The legislation would designate 330,000 acres of wilderness in three separate Idaho wilderness areas: White Cloud Wilderness, Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, and Jerry Peak Wilderness.

The Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which had been introduced in the House in 2005, was finally introduced in the Senate for the first time. This new measure contains a number of significant improvements won over time by local and national partnerships, such as the addition of 32,000 more wilderness acres.

In Nevada, the Clark County Commission passed a resolution endorsing Gold Butte Wilderness and National Conservation Area. Gold Butte is characterized by dramatic sandstone formations and red rock cliffs, and thousands of Native American petroglyphs and prehistoric sites. The stakes for Gold Butte could not have been higher: Recently, irresponsible off-roading recreation has caused environmental damage and vandalism, bullet holes and graffiti of cultural sites and Native American rock art have been reported. Now, after this key step toward permanently protecting this area, it is time for the Nevada congressional delegation to act, and consider legislation to permanently protect Gold Butte as Wilderness.

In Colorado, Eagle County sent a letter endorsing nearly all of the areas in the conservation proposal for Hidden Gems. With the County's endorsement, Hidden Gems advocates are one step closer to designating a total of 380,000 acres of wilderness. The region is unique for its protection of lands that provide a home for elk, the Canada Lynx, black bears and mountain lions. These areas will also provide for greater habitat connectivity and ensure Colorado's watersheds and backcountry landscape is protected for future generations.

Also in Colorado, legislation was introduced this week by Senator Michael Bennet and Congressman John Salazar to create the Chimney Rock National Monument in southwest Colorado. The legislation will designate the 4,726 acre area as a National Monument and protect the region which contains watershed, scenic, archeological and cultural resources.

In California, the City of Winters endorsed the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Conservation Area proposal. Located less than 100 miles from the Bay Area and Sacramento, the area is a dazzling outdoor wonderland, rich in natural features and recreational opportunities, such as hiking, riding, kayaking, hunting, fishing and bird watching. We are hopeful legislation to permanently protect this special area will be introduced in the coming months.

And finally, in South Dakota, Senator Tim Johnson introduced legislation to protect 48,000 acres on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland that would be the first National Forest Grassland wilderness in the country. Local groups, such as the South Dakota Wild Grassland Coalition, look forward to seeing the Buffalo Gap National Grassland wilderness bill introduced.

This week was monumental for the areas listed above. As Breton Island, the second oldest National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S., suffers potentially devastating impacts from the Gulf oil spill, we are reminded of the fragility of the places we work to protect.