WASHINGTON — For the second time this year, the Senate has passed a long-delayed bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, from a California mountain range to a forest in Virginia.
The 77-20 vote on Thursday sends the bill to the House, where final legislative approval could come as early as next week.
The Senate first approved the measure in January, but the House rejected it last week amid a partisan dispute over gun rights. The gun issue was not raised during Senate debate.
The legislation — a package of nearly 170 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range 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 would expand wilderness designation, which blocks nearly all development, into areas that now are not protected.
Supporters called the legislation among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in decades.
"The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority," said Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society. "These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis."
The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.