Connecticut Congressman Would Wall off Land in Five Western States

Published September 1, 1999

“That land is not their land,” Representative Chris Shays (R-Connecticut) told Environment News, referring to the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. In an exclusive interview regarding his bill, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, Shays explained why he would declare 18 million acres of land in those states virtually off-limits to humans.

“That land is our land,” Shays continued, here referring to the federal government and the people in general. Shays said the states can’t be trusted to take care of the land. Decisions concerning land use, he maintained, must be left to a “higher” government.

Shays’ bill, H.R. 488, would restrict mining, lumbering, road maintenance, and all use of motorized vehicles except snowmobiles. He said eventually snowmobiling would be eliminated as well. The bill also seeks to establish roadless corridors for the travel of wildlife from one wilderness area to another.

The scope of Shays’ proposed 18 million acre wild land designation is dramatic and unprecedented. By contrast, President Clinton’s controversial 1996 declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah put just 1.7 million acres off-limits to human endeavors.

In addition to his desired wild land declaration, Shays said an additional 1.7 million acres would be made into national park and preserve study areas; about one million acres would become Natural Recovery Areas; and 1,810 miles of waterways would have their use restricted if his bill is passed. All told, Shays’ bill would affect a total area roughly three times the size of his home state’s total acreage.

Shays’ Allies on the Fringe

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an anti-development, anti-human-activity group, claims to have authored the Congressman’s bill. In fact, Shays is distributing a slick eight-page, four-color brochure published by the group, a 501(c)(4) corporation, promoting the bill as well as requesting donations for the brochure’s wider distribution.

The group is closely allied with The Wildlands Project, whose stated goal is have 50 percent of North America designated as wild lands, thus closing them to human activity. Shays supports that goal.

“I’m trying to create as much public land as possible,” Shays told Environment News. “I would love it if 60 percent of Connecticut were owned by the government or in wilderness.”

Shays conceded that converting his own state to government-owned, off-limits-to-man wilderness will be difficult, as virtually none of Connecticut is currently federally owned. It will take some time, he said, to “reclaim” what is now privately owned land in Eastern and Midwestern states. That, he said, is why he and the groups who support making land off-limits are starting in the West, where government ownership of 60 to 75 percent of an individual state’s land is common.

The Wildlands Project has outlined a platform of Deep Ecology which says:

  • all human and non-human life has equal value;
  • resource consumption above what is needed to supply “vital” human needs is immoral;
  • human population must be reduced; and
  • Western civilization must radically change present economic, technological, and ideological structures.

Among Shays’ supporters is Dave Foreman, former leader of Earth First! and now publisher of Wild Earth magazine, also allied with The Wildlands Project. Foreman said in his book, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, “the only hope of the Earth is to withdraw huge areas as inviolate natural sanctuaries from the depredations of modern industry and technology. Move out the people and cars. Reclaim the roads and the plowed lands.”

Shays’ bill faces rough terrain ahead. It has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Forestry and Forest Health, chaired by Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), who has taken strong positions against the expansion of federal lands and increased restrictions on their use.