A massive lands bill that would have created two new wilderness areas in southwest Oregon appears to be dead for the year, a victim of a filibuster threat and the need to focus on the nation's growing economic woes.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat strongly supports the lands package, but his first priorities in a lame-duck session next week are a planned rescue for the auto industry and extension of unemployment insurance benefits.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has threatened to filibuster the lands bill over what he calls its excessive spending — nearly $4 billion over five years — and the removal of millions of acres of federal property from oil and gas development.
"The outlook for this legislation does not look real good," said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The two big problems right now are the clock and the economy."
Coburn's threat meant the Senate could have spent up to three days debating the lands package — time that Reid and other Senate leaders say should be devoted to the auto bailout and other legislation responding to the country's economic crisis.
However, 20 Senators from both sides of the aisle, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Republican Gordon Smith, signed a letter sent to Reid on Friday, urging him to pass the measure.
The bill includes creation of the roughly 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in the mountains east of Ashland and the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the Elk River drainage near Port Orford.
The Soda Mountain Wilderness would be on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District. The proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness area is on the western edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The bill would also expand wilderness areas around Oregon's Mount Hood and created a vast new wilderness in Idaho's Owyhee canyons as well as carve out areas in California, Colorado and New Mexico.
The Mount Hood bill, which includes the Copper Salmon and the Soda Mountain proposals, was co-sponsored by Wyden and Smith.
Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Kardon, said Friday that Wyden was among many senators in both parties frustrated by Coburn's refusal to allow the lands package to move though the Senate.
"These are bills that moved unanimously through committee with Republican and Democratic support," Kardon said, adding that Wyden was particularly disappointed "that Senator Smith won't be allowed the honor he deserves in enacting a Wyden-Smith Mount Hood wilderness legislation."
Smith was defeated in his bid for re-election earlier this month.