It was a long time in coming, but when Congress finally passed the massive Omnibus Public Lands Bill of 2009 late in March it extended enormous protections for public lands in general and the National Park System specifically.
The measure, which President Obama quickly signed into law, carried more than 160 individual bills. It promises to bring hundreds of thousands of national park acres into the national wilderness system, creates three new units of the National Park System, and designates the nation's first national geologic trail.
Why is official wilderness designation so important to park lands, many of which are managed as wilderness? Because that designation ensures that those acres will never be developed for roads, or lodges, or mines and will be off-limits to mechanical vehicles. Parks that benefited from the omnibus bill in this arena include Rocky Mountain National Park, where nearly 250,000 acres will be designated as wilderness; Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, nearly 90,000 acres, and; Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which will have 11,000 acres set aside as wilderness.
The omnibus bill also gives life to the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (www.iafi.org/trail.html), which is a network of marked automobile tour routes that extend from Missoula, Montana, to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Washington/Oregon coast. The routes follow the path of prehistoric floods that sculpted the Columbia basin in the western United States. The floods were born from glacial lakes that formed behind ice dams and were let loose when the dams collapsed.
Elsewhere across the National Park System the legislation provides for expansion of the Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts to protect the historically-significant farm of Colonel James Barrett, commander of the Middlesex Militia; creates a commemorative trail in upstate New York that connects local and state sites to the Women's Rights National Historical Park; adjusts the boundaries of both the Little River Canyon National Preserve in Alabama and the Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas to protect them from adjacent development; designates the Amargosa River as Wild and Scenic, a move that will provide protection for water resources at Death Valley National Park, and; toughens penalties on the theft of fossils from federal lands, including national parks such as Badlands in South Dakota and Petrified Forest in Arizona.
Finally, the omnibus bill also clears the way for Michigan's River Raisin Battlefield, which played a role in the War of 1812, to become a part of the park system, designates President Bill Clinton's boyhood home in Arkansas as a national historic site, and establishes the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park in New Jersey.
Beyond the National Park System, the legislation permanently creates the National Landscape Conservation System, which contains areas of rich archaeological and cultural significance including Canyons of Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, and Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona as well as vast wild areas such as Nevada's Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area and California's King Range National Conservation Area.
The Conservation System protects critical habitat for fish and wildlife, provides access to world-class hunting and fishing, and offers challenging recreation for the self-guided adventurer.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com. This site tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Along with offering travel tidbits for those visiting the national parks, the Traveler offers anecdotes, insights, and a place for park junkies to speak their minds and stay atop park-related issues.