It’s been an exciting year for public lands geeks. After nearly five years in which Congress failed to designate a single acre of wilderness (the first Congress since 1966 to earn that dubious distinction), the House this week is taking action on a slew of wilderness, public lands and recreation bills. But while it’s tempting to applaud lawmakers for making headway on conservation measures, the bills aren’t all rosy, and they may illustrate the environmental compromises necessary to pass legislation in today’s hyper-partisan climate.
Three packages of bills are making their way through Congress. Here’s a rundown of what we’re paying attention to at HCN, with gratitude to E&E News for much of the information:
PACKAGE 1 - Wilderness bills:
- On Jan. 28, the House Natural Resources Committee approved bills that would designate 75,000 acres of new wilderness in Nevada. But though environmental advocates praised the Pine Forest and Wovoka wilderness proposals, last-minute amendments tacked on by Rob Bishop, R-Utah, weakened the measures, The Wilderness Society says. Bishop’s amendments would prevent federal agencies from closing roads in or near wilderness areas without opening an equivalent road nearby, allow logging for fire management, and prevent land adjacent to Pine Forest from being considered for future wilderness designation. Bishop claims the trade-offs are standard. But Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called them unprecedented. “You only want (them) to be standard because you hate the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he retorted.
Yet while conservation-minded Democrats like DeFazio begrudged the compromise, industry backers like Bishop weren’t satisfied either. It pained him, he said, that “we are creating more wilderness than we are actually adding to economic development.” In exchange for the 75,000 acres of wilderness, restrictions will be eased on about 25,000 acres of Nevada public lands to encourage economic development, including a copper mine in Lyon County.
- Rep. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican running for Max Baucus’ vacant Senate seat, says his bill to protect the North Fork Watershed west of Glacier National Park from future oil and gas leases is the first public lands bill in 30 years supported by each member of the Montana delegation. The bill passed committee with overwhelming support.
Other wilderness bills include 32,000 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and several smaller parcels in Nevada. All the wilderness bills will now go before the full House; companion bills have already passed Senate committees.
PACKAGE 2 - Sportsmen’s bills:
- The Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act – an eight-bill package promoting hunting, fishing and target shooting on public lands – is expected to pass the House this week with bipartisan support, but is predicted to encounter hiccups in the Senate. The most contentious provision would prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead ammunition or fishing tackle. As HCN has reported, California condors can die from lead poisoning after feeding on carrion embedded with bullets; California became the first state to ban lead bullets last year. Some hunters oppose such regulations because lead-alternative bullets are more expensive and aren’t manufactured for all guns.
Another provision in the package would allocate firearm and ammunition tax revenue to fund promotional outreach of shooting ranges on public lands. And another would allow the importation of legally killed polar bears. (Because, truly, there’s nothing more comforting than a stuffed polar bear in your living room when you’re reading scary stories about climate change.)
- Related, but not part of the sportsmen’s package, Montana’s Daines tackles the issue of public lands that aren’t really public at all – an issue Jodi Peterson covered for HCN. Nationally, more than 4 million acres of public land are off-limits because users simply can’t access them. Daines’ proposal – which mirrors a Senate bill from Jon Tester, D-Mont., – would ensure that at least 1.5 percent of Land and Water Conservation Fund money goes to improving recreational access to these places.
- Also on a related note, the House unanimously passed a “good Samaritan” bill by Joe Heck, R-Nev., designed to expedite search-and-rescue groups’ access to federal lands. The legislation was introduced last May after private search teams waited nearly a year for permits to recover the bodies of two people missing near Lake Mead. A companion bill is now before the Senate.
PACKAGE 3 - (More) public lands bills:
- Of all the public lands’ packages before Congress, the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act is perhaps the most controversial. It includes a bill from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that would salvage 1 billion board feet of burned timber from Yosemite’s Rim Fire. As I reported for HCN last fall, salvage logging is always a controversial practice – some say it clears fuel and adds economic value, while others claim it destroys valuable habitat – but McClintock’s suggestion to commercially log 257,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest without public notice, environmental review or litigation has raised ire among some environmental groups.
- Fewer public lands: A bill written by Bishop would forbid the Bureau of Land Management from acquiring any new lands until it creates a database of public lands it could get rid of; while another Utah Republican, Jason Chaffetz, has a separate bill (not part of the package) requiring the Interior Department to sell 3.3 million acres of lands identified as “excess” during the Clinton administration.
- The package also includes a bill from Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to expand human-powered boating on off-limit rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Kayaking enthusiasts have complained for decades that some of the world’s best whitewater is locked up behind outdated Park Service policies, but officials say the strict boating rules protect wildlife and uphold park policies. The same officials strongly oppose the bill for siphoning policy decisions from park managers. See more HCN coverage of the controversy here.
Though it’s heartening that lawmakers are taking a look at public lands – and may even protect some of them, albeit with strings attached – the past few years have made many of us skeptical of counting on Congressional action. Lately, President Obama has been dropping hints that he’s thinking the same thing. In his State of the Union address last week, Obama said he would employ executive action on issues with legislation stalled in Congress, a course of action that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has closely echoed.
So far, Obama’s public lands legacy favors development: as of December, he’d protected 2.9 million acres of federal land, while leasing 7.3 million acres to oil and gas companies. But as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, anonymous White House sources say Obama is “poised” to protect 500,000 acres of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region near Las Cruces, N.M., and 1,600 acres of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands on California’s central coast from development if Congress doesn’t act soon on similar protections.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.