WASHINGTON (AP) - Western Republicans are pushing forward with a bill to set a 10-year deadline for Congress to act on wilderness proposals, despite protests from Democrats that it could lead to damage on millions of acres of pristine federal land.
The proposal from Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, would allow areas set aside for possible wilderness designation to lose that protection if Congress does not make a formal wilderness designation within a decade.
Under a 1964 law, only Congress can designate wilderness but agencies such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management can treat remote areas as if they were wilderness until Congress acts.
Supporters say the lack of any deadline for congressional action on wilderness proposals allows federal agencies to lock up land indefinitely. Activities such as logging, mining, building, bicycling and off-road vehicle use are banned in areas managed as wilderness.
''Congress never intended that these areas would be studied in perpetuity,'' said Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont. ''Congress doesn't get to act because there's no urgency to act.''
But Democrats and environmentalists say Hansen's proposal would eviscerate federal wilderness protection.
''It's clearly an attack on the wilderness system,'' said Larry Young of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Critics of the Hansen plan say congressional opponents of the 1964 wilderness law could repeatedly block wilderness proposals, eventually allowing those areas to be opened up for intensive recreational or other uses.
''I don't think it's a good idea to give the Senate wilderness study hostages to hold over the House,'' said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Congress has approved several wilderness plans in recent years that protected some land while releasing other areas from wilderness management, said Udall's cousin, Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
''I don't see why we need a deadline,'' Mark Udall said.
A House Resources subcommittee headed by Hansen sent the measure to the full committee on Thursday, rejecting two Mark Udall amendments meant to torpedo it. Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, is a cosponsor of Hansen's bill, making it likely the measure will reach the House floor.
One of Mark Udall's amendments would have changed the bill's title to the ''Wilderness Study Termination Act'' instead of ''America's Wilderness Protection Act.'' Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said the current title was too misleading.
''If we were used-car salesmen, they'd throw us in jail and take our license for doing something like that,'' Inslee said.