National Wilderness Conference, Albuquerque, October 18, 2014
Janine Blaeloch, Western Lands Project

In the late 1990s, just as the Wilderness Act approached its 40th anniversary, a new kind of
legislation materialized in the US Congress. Unlike traditional wilderness legislation that simply
designated the boundaries of the newly- protected areas and might include “release” language,
these bills tied wilderness designations to complex land-use issues that went far beyond the
wilderness boundaries.
In order to advance wilderness in a hostile atmosphere, conservation groups began to
negotiate wilderness legislation with politicians in a collaborative, collegial manner, and
brought in so-called “stakeholders”—ranchers, county commissioners, developers, ORV
enthusiasts, and others. Wilderness became just one component of bills that also exchanged,
sold off, or gave away public land; facilitated major water and land development projects;
created special deals for powerful constituents, and in some cases moved toward establishing
local control of public lands.
Critics of this phenomenon came to call it “quid pro quo wilderness,” because members of
Congress sponsoring these bills made it clear that wilderness protection was strictly contingent
on the inclusion of pro-development and privatization provisions.
There are several factors that brought about this significant change in wilderness politics.
Beginning in 1992, the Clinton Administration laid the groundwork for a more pragmatic
approach to environmental issues and land protection. National environmental groups were
centralizing their leadership in Washington, D.C. Vice President Al Gore regularly met with the
Big Greens. Unprecedented access to Administration officials softened their positions against
inadequate or harmful policies. The place where important things got done wasn’t necessarily
near a national forest or Wilderness, but around a conference table—possibly with an
Undersecretary of Agriculture or Interior-- or the Vice President.
In 1995, Republicans seized control of the House and Senate, beginning a long period of
Republican dominance, and the committees overseeing public land issues were ruled by
western Republicans not kindly disposed toward wilderness preservation or public land.
The big environmental groups were apparently concluding that to gain ground under the
Republicans, and with weak support from the Clinton Administration, a new approach would be
Influence also came from charitable foundations, whose generous support had become
essential to environmental groups that were expanding their staff and aspiring to national
influence. Although they are widely perceived as left-leaning, the biggest foundations actually
favor, at most, modest increments of change. The go-along-to-get along model of quid pro quo
was evidently appealing. For, rather than recognizing and supporting ongoing work by

environmental groups, these foundations identified and supported only the groups willing to
take direction from them.
The Pew Charitable Trusts were a critical player, funding and controlling their subsidiary, the
Campaign for America’s Wilderness, and giving support to other national groups and local
wilderness campaigners who were willing to adopt the quid pro quo approach.
The Wilderness Society was a leader in putting together the project that many consider the
template for quid pro quo wilderness: a proposal for Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon. In
the late 1990s, the Clinton Administration proposed to create a national monument on Steens
Mountain, and the proposal prompted loud protest—mainly from ranchers with private
inholdings and grazing allotments on the Steens.
The Administration was already under fire for its designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument in southwest Utah, which had sparked a huge furor in that state. On the
defensive over the Grand Staircase, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt advised interested parties
to come up with their own approach for protecting Steens Mountain, and negotiations began
between ranchers, conservationists, local politicians, and congressional staffers.
In the legislation that resulted, passed in 2000, a Wilderness Area of about 170,000 acres was
designated—of which 97,000 acres are “cow-free.”
The quid pro quo for Steens Wilderness came in the form of both land and cash. Several Steens
ranchers were bought out with huge land exchanges in which they received more than five
times the amount of land the public gained. The legislation also offered $5 million in cash
payments to make them “economically whole.” The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden,
proudly stated that the Steens was “not your grandfather’s wilderness.”
Not long after the Steens deal came bills for wilderness and public land in Nevada. Senator
Harry Reid was able to get conservation groups’ support for three bills eventually passed
between 2002 and 2006. They designated new Wilderness in three counties in Nevada, but they
also earmarked tens of thousands of acres of federal land to be auctioned off or given away,
including vast acreages in the Las Vegas Valley opened for development, and with some of the
auction proceeds going to local government. One of Reid’s bills gave water developers a free
right of way extending more than 400 miles across public land, with the intention that a
pipeline would be built to pull water from northern Nevada to the Las Vegas Valley.
Two bills in Idaho, sponsored by Republicans, proposed Wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds
with an outright giveaway of public lands to local towns and counties; and Wilderness in the
Owyhee Canyonlands with generous land exchanges for ranchers, who would be allowed to
submit appraisals for their own lands. The Owyhee bill also proposed establishment of an
advisory committee that would essentially enact local control of federal land.
Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah sponsored a bill that included a massive sell-off of
public land in Washington County, Utah, with the modest addition of some Wilderness.
Bennett’s bill also included a free conveyance to the local water district, including the right of
way on up to 14 square miles for pipelines and other water infrastructure.

These bills were being actively, vociferously, persistently promoted by national and affiliated
local environmental groups. The quid pro quo approach was firmly entrenched. Groups that
were involved in these negotiations might find themselves agreeing to previously unimaginable
compromises, but as long as the hope of wilderness designation remained, their support could
be counted on. One congressional aide who helped write these bills for two different bosses
said, “We think stand-alone wilderness is done.” One Wilderness Society staffer opined that
legislation to privatize public lands was inevitable, so they might as well attach some wilderness
to the proposals.
In the meantime, grassroots public-land groups and wilderness activists were reeling at the
implications of the deals being made. A lot of the bills waived cornerstone environmental laws.
Some bypassed the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. This was occurring at a time
when the Republican Congress was floating plans to “streamline” NEPA, so it was not ideal for
environmental groups to be supporting selective NEPA waivers. The Federal Land Management
& Policy Act was also waived to release public lands for sale that had never been identified for
The bills included increasingly more detailed, micromanagement language for Wilderness that
moved the land further from true Wilderness protection. The ideal of Wilderness was being
systematically contaminated with compromises and special provisions. Other public lands,
many deserving of protection, were being used as currency to buy Wilderness, dramatically
undermining the idea that these lands have intrinsic value, and treating them as a simple
Quid pro quo wilderness was creating an entirely new paradigm that made Wilderness a line
item on a spreadsheet. Democratic congressional committee staffers were sounding the alarm
that by the time these bills came to their desks they had already been negotiated to the nth
degree, and could only get worse in committee deliberations.
And there was a serious schism opening in the environmental community. Grassroots groups
used whatever venues they could to challenge quid pro quo deals; beseeched the groups
supporting them to change course; and formed coalitions to defend the public lands that were
being given away.
By the early 2000s, Congress and a new Bush Administration were pushing their own schemes
for large-scale privatization, including plans to sell so-called excess National Forest land, auction
off public land to mining companies, and sell National Parks.
It was somewhat surprising that Republicans that had introduced their compromise wilderness
bills multiple times had not been able to gain their passage. There appeared to be equilibrium
between politicians who couldn’t stomach the public land giveaways, and others who wouldn’t
vote for a wilderness bill no matter how much development it facilitated.
By late 2006, there were four quid pro quo deals lined up in Congress—the two Idaho bills, the
Utah bill, and Harry Reid’s bill for White Pine County, Nevada. With midterm elections looming,
grassroots opponents feared the proposals would all be tacked on as riders to a last-minute,
must-pass bill.

To try to forestall this possibility, a coalition of these groups issued what they called “An Open
Letter to the Conservation Community Calling for a Moratorium on Damaging Public Land and
Wilderness Legislation.” This was sent to the groups supporting the bills, to members of
Congress, and to the press. It was signed by more than 80 groups from across the U.S.
In addition to outlining the problems with the bills, the letter said:
“…there is a strong potential for change in the makeup of Congress—less than three
months from now. This is not a mere naïve hope, but a [real] possibility. The only
prudent approach at this pivotal time is to abandon support for these severely
compromised proposals. We must re-unify as a principled, public-interest movement,
and fight for true wilderness and public land protection in the new year.”
The elections weeks later did end the Republican majority. Ironically, in the last weeks of
Republican rule, the only quid pro quo bill that passed was the White Pine County, Nevada bill
of Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader.
The change in Congress in 2007 was consequential for Wilderness and public lands because it
brought New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman into the chairmanship of the Senate Energy &
Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman had been the committee’s somewhat quiet ranking
member for several years. But now he seemed activated by a desire to preserve Wilderness and
public land and to take active part in the debate over quid pro quo deals. One by one and
provision by provision, Bingaman and his committee staff faced off with the bills’ sponsors.
Over time and long negotiation, the most egregious provisions in the bills were gutted.
Mandated land exchanges and sales were taken out, as were waivers of environmental laws.
The three quid pro quos still hanging around—for Idaho and Utah—became mere shadows of
their former selves, stripped of the outrageous giveaways and bad precedents.
At a hearing for the Owyhee Canyonlands bill, Bingaman said this:
I understand that any proposal to designate wilderness involves compromise and
tradeoffs as to how many acres should be protected and what the potential impact will
be to other uses. Ultimately, the size of the designated wilderness area reflects the
balancing of those issues. That balancing has been complicated, however, in that many
wilderness proposals are now packaged together with directed Federal land sales;
requirements to use inflated land valuations; mandatory motorized use areas; and
requirements for land management agencies to fund local development projects. In my
view, the packaging of wilderness bills with provisions such as these is a very troubling
While Sen. Bingaman was strongly critical of the proposals they had worked to create, he did
not abandon the national organizations that had pushed quid pro quo—he did deliver for them
in the form of the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands bill, which contained many laws supported by
these groups. And even the stripped-down quid pro quo bills folded into the Omnibus still
contained provisions pertaining to wilderness that will continue to plague us in the future. But a
line had been drawn in the sand regarding some of the worst deals the groups had made.


It is tempting to write a post-mortem for quid pro quo, but proposals to offset wilderness
designations with harmful concessions are still around, 5 years after that Omnibus passed. Like
everything else, they’ve been held off by congressional paralysis. Jeff Bingaman has retired and
it is not clear who will step up to defend public lands—perhaps this state’s own Martin
If the Republicans seize control of the Senate next year, as most are predicting, they may find
new energy to push bills that privatize and develop public lands—and a seasoned group of quid
pro quo negotiators ready to attach Wilderness to them.
In that light, and especially at this 50-year mark, we might hearken back to the plea issued in
2006 by the grassroots groups in their open letter:
We must re-unify as a principled, public-interest movement, and fight for true wilderness and
public land protection in the new year.