Obama signs landmark U.S. conservation bill

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 in the East Room of the White House in Washington March 30, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama signed sweeping land and water conservation rules into law on Monday, setting aside millions of acres as protected areas and delighting environmentalists.

The measure, a package of more than 160 bills, would designate about 2 million acres -- parks, rivers, streams, desert, forest and trails -- in nine states as new wilderness and render them off limits to oil and gas drilling and other development.

The House of Representatives approved the measure on a vote of 285-140 a week after it cleared the Senate, capping years of wrangling and procedural roadblocks.

Opponents, most of them Republicans, complained the legislation would deny access for oil and gas drilling and said House Democrats refused to consider changes.

“This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas for granted,” Obama said at a signing ceremony.

The areas that would be designated as new wilderness are mostly in California, followed by Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia, New Mexico and Michigan.

Environmentalists welcomed the move.

“As global warming changes wildlife habitat and food sources, it’s more important than ever that we take care of our last remaining wild forests and rivers,” the environmental group Sierra Club said in a statement.

“This is the most important lands protection legislation in decades.”

Reporting by Jeff Mason and Thomas Ferraro, editing by Vicki Allen