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Originally published Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 2:32 PM

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Congress votes to expand wilderness in 9 states

Congress has voted to 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.

WASHINGTON —

Congress has voted to 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, which opponents, mostly Republicans, called a "land grab" that would block energy development on vast swaths of federal land, is on its way to President Barack Obama for his likely signature.

The House passed the bill, 285-140, Wednesday, 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, which approved it 77-20, setting up Wednesday's vote.

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

The bill also protects land in Alaska under a controversial land swap that allows the state to go forward with a planned airport access road in a remote wildlife refuge near the Bering Sea. Critics call the project a "road to nowhere."

Environmental groups and lawmakers in both parties long have pushed for the bill, which several called 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.

"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 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.

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Because of a parliamentary maneuver adopted by 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 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 expand wilderness designation - which blocks nearly all development - into areas that now are not protected.

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

The project calls for a gravel road through the refuge, which is home to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, salmon, caribou and other animals.

Environmentalists and some Democrats call the road another Alaska boondoggle and say it would be an environmental disaster.

Supporters, including all three Alaska members of Congress, say the road is needed to connect a remote village on the Bering Sea that now uses a hovercraft to reach an airport and hospital.

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The bill is H.R. 146.

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On the Net:

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov/

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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