Enviros suffer first major setback in Obama era


The environmental movement has just fallen short of a major goal, for the first time in the new green-trending era of President Barack Obama and the ramped-up Democrats in Congress.

The stakes of this national battle are mostly on Western ground. It's the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 -- the biggest public lands move in decades, trying to designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness, plus new national parks and monuments, park expansions, wild and scenic rivers, remarkable trails etc.

The enviros have been aching to make this power play -- 164 bills wedged into a single package of more than 1,200 pages. Many of the bills got stalled in the ungreen era of the previous president, Republican George W. Bush, and previous sessions of Congress run by other ungreen Republicans.

The Omni indicates that enviros may be getting heady and overreaching. It also reveals new alignments in Western politics -- mainly the increasing fractures in the Republican Party.


Every Western Democrat in the House and Senate has voted for the Omni.

And Western Republicans split 30-13 over the Omni, with these voting YES:

California Rep. Mary Bono Mack
California Rep. David Dreier
California Rep. Jerry Lewis
California Rep. Buck McKeon
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch
Washington Rep. David Reichert
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi

The Omni's terms would be felt almost entirely in the West, including ...

California -- 750,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, mountains, redwoods)

Colorado -- 450,000 acres of wilderness (canyons and mountains)

Idaho -- 500,000 acres of wilderness (deserts and canyons)

New Mexico -- 16,000 acres of wilderness plus protections for dinosaur tracks and a cave formation

Oregon -- 200,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, forests, wildflower meadows)

Utah -- 235,000 acres of wilderness (canyon country)

Wyoming -- 1.2 million acres of national forest would be off limits to future oil and gas drilling

The Omni would also launch the National Landscape Conservation System -- providing added protection for 26 million acres of the best Bureau of Land Management holdings, also a Western thing.

The Republican infighting includes:

In Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz voted against the Omni. But both of Utah's senators voted for it.

In Wyoming, the lone House member, Cynthia Lummis, voted against the Omni. But both of Wyoming's senators voted for it.

In Washington, an often green Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert in metro Seattle, supports the Omni. But inland, two ungreen Republican Congressmen oppose it.

The Omni vote also describes Arizona:

Both of Arizona's Republican senators and all of its Republican House members oppose the Omni. That indicates Arizona has the weakest local environmental movement in the West and the most ideological Republicans in Congress.

The Wilderness Society sums up the Omni's basic terms.

The enviros pushing the Omni include nationals, like TWS and Trout Unlimited, and locals like the Southern Utah Wilderness Association. Some have included consensus politics, allying with some Republicans on wilderness deals that would transfer federal land to local governments and private developers. There are also naked water-development projects -- the Omni has something for nearly every public-lands interest, other than die-hard right-wing or left-wing ideologues.

Sponsored by two Western Democrats -- New Mexico's Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid -- the Omni slid through the Senate in January by a lopsided vote (66-12)

Another Western Democrat -- Calif. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who runs the House -- led the effort to push it through her chamber on March 11. She feared that the Omni is so many faceted, it might not survive open debate and amendments. So she invoked a special rule that choked off discussion and amendments. But under that rule, she had to get two-thirds of the House members to OK the package. And the vote came down 282-144 -- two votes shy of two-thirds (reported by AP and the Environment News Service).

Gun-rights versus gun-control figured in the vote -- as usual (see AP and Gun Owners of America). So did the ideologues who specialize in opposing any federal land or federal regulation.

Here's an angry Western editorial about the mess.

Omni backers vow to bring it up again in the House. But they'll need to persuade two opponents to change sides. Or they'll have to open up the Omni for debate and amendments, which would probably mean exploding it into many pieces and involving the Senate again -- countless complications.

From the Omni, we see that enviros can count on the Democratic Party on public-lands deals. And they're making inroads in the Republican Party, even though they're not quite where they need to be for something this huge.

Utah's Rep. Bishop -- reportedly shouting -- and Utah's Rep. Chaffetz express some of their reasons for opposing the Omni -- the need to drill the land that Wyoming's senators want to protect, for instance. And Wyoming's Rep. Lummis would also like to drill there.

Idaho's Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican who's worked seven years on the Owyhee wilderness deal, which is in the Omni, laments the conflicts in NewWest.net:

(Crapo) believes the process for landing legislative approval has turned into an unproductive, conflict-based melee that wastes time, money, and goodwill between people.

It'll be interesting to see how the fractures and shifts continue to play out in the West. Right now, we have the hardline green Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance allied with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch!


Omnibus Lands Bill
Jimbo Buickerood
Jimbo Buickerood
Mar 16, 2009 09:46 AM
The headline of Ray's piece here misses the mark completely as does his lead sentence. The reality that the House vote on the Omnibus Lands last week missed the 2/3 mark by ONLY 2 votes is the real story - that vote indicates an overwhelming majority in the House favors the Omnibus Lands bill as a package and there is little doubt the bill will be approved intact. Yes, there will be a slight delay, but the bill is already back on the Senate floor today/Monday/16th - the majority will not be denied in it's support for public land protections, and this majority includes a mostly bi=partisan West.
Ray got it wrong this time!
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Mar 16, 2009 02:32 PM
Ray Ring's otherwise informative article fails to properly identify the debate within the environmental community over the Omnibus Western Lands Bill. Ray makes this statement: "the Omni has something for nearly every public-lands interest, other than die-hard right-wing or left-wing ideologues."

That is an over-simplification. There are solid reasons why many public land activists don't support the Omni. A good summary of these reasons is available from Wilderness Watch at http://www.wildernesswatch.org/[…]/Special%20Provisions.pdf.

Founded and still dominated by retired and former public land management officials, Wilderness Watch is hardly "left wing". However, I guess it could be called "ideological" because of its insistence the the Wilderness Act should be followed - a radical concept for some.

I guess I qualify as one of those "left-wing ideologues" to which Ray refers. I am against wilderness bills that allow helicopters and small aircraft to land inside wilderness and I am against bills which designate small amounts of wilderness while authorizing a pipleline to bring rural water to Las Vegas (as per one of Harry Reid's recent bills).

And this brings up another place where I think Ray got it wrong: He states: "From the Omni, we see that enviros can count on the Democratic Party on public-lands deals." In my view this is exactly the opposite of the real situation: From the Omni, we can see that the Democratic Leadership can count on the Environmental Establishment on public-land deals."

In my view that is a sad state of affairs and reflects the weak condition of an environmental establishment over-identified and subservient to the Democratic Party.
Agreed, Felice
Apr 01, 2009 10:22 PM
I'm surprised, though, that you didn't use the magic phrase "Gang Green."

And, might I say, it's a pleasure to read you on Counterpunch as well.
revealing disagreement
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Mar 16, 2009 04:20 PM
Jimbo's comment calls the Omni a good conservation package ... while Felice's calls it a sellout ... Thanks for commenting ... And PS: Felice, I think now that I should not have used the term "ideologues" -- in the future I'll try to use "idealists" which says what I mean without the implied negatives. -- Ray
Denny Rehberg voted no
Ron Moody
Ron Moody
Mar 16, 2009 05:33 PM
Note to author:
Montana doesn't have a proposed wilderness in this bill but the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument would be part of the NLCS. Therefore, the votes of our delegation are reportable as well: Senators voted yes; lone Republican representative Dennis Rehberg voted no. (Besides Montana is still in the west, according to rumors.)
Montana delegation
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Mar 17, 2009 09:37 AM
Hi Ron -- Thanks for the comment. I reported the Montana votes accurately within the summation statements: All Western Democrats voted for the Omni (so that includes Montana's two Dem senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester). And only the named Republicans voted for it (so Montana's Rep. Denny Rehberg is among the 30 Western Republicans who didn't vote for the Omni). I didn't have room to list all the Western Democrats plus the 30 anti-Omni Republicans. -- Ray in Bozeman for HCN
Try substance rather than labels
George Nickas
George Nickas
Mar 17, 2009 01:09 PM
Ray Ring writes that in the future he'll try using "idealists" instead of "idealogues" when referring to those of us who believe in something better than the status quo. While his intent is laudable, I suggest that Ray instead focus on the substance of people's concerns rather than worry about what label he can attach to "frame" their positions. Not that I mind being accused of, nor having the organization I work for accused of, “idealism”--indeed I thought that's why movements exist--its just that throwing around labels instead of describing positions is cheap and not very informative.

When Ray writes that there's something for everyone in the Omnibus bill, he's right. The Omnibus bill, much like the increasingly discredited "earmarking" process, contains something for everybody, including those who oppose Wilderness, want to see it roaded, motorized, and otherwise degraded so the very idea (dare I say, “ideal”) of Wilderness is at risk.

Like almost all reporting on the Omnibus, Ray's piece parrots its supporters' talking points while ignoring legitimate concerns. Maybe it's just getting too hard to tell the good guys from the bad. After all, what can you make of the Beltway greens going gaga over a bill that opens the door for building a road through the middle of the 500 square-mile Izembek Wilderness in Alaska, harming not only one of our nation's premier wildlife and waterfowl refuges, but also putting the lie to the Wilderness Act's promise that areas so designated would be preserved "for the permanent good of the whole people." For years when the Republicans were in charge of Congress the Izembek road was an “over our dead body” issue for the Democrats and Beltway enviros, today it doesn’t even gain mention in their news releases and action alerts. So just how permanent is Wilderness when the greater goal seems to be to just get something passed, and an area’s demise doesn’t deserve mention?

To be sure, the Izembek provision is just one of several that has caused many public land activists to call for changes to the bill. And while it's disingenuous for Republican leaders to complain about the process--they pulled similar shenanigans when they were in charge—they’re right to point out that dozens of the individual bills inserted in the omnibus have never had so much as a hearing in the House. It's hard to deny there's something wrong with a supposedly democratic process that doesn't allow for open and honest discussion and debate on legislation.

What makes the shortcomings in the Omnibus bill particularly tragic is the good parts of the bill could stand and pass on their own. There has never been a case where Congress failed to pass a clean, stand alone wilderness bill that had the support of that State’s delegation. There’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t hold true for the bills lumped together in the Omnibus. It would take more time, it might be harder. But it can certainly be done. If not, if Congress has tied itself up so tightly it can’t pass simple bills that have broad support, or has become so distracted with junkets and fundraising that there isn’t time to do the people’s business in a deliberative way, then it needs to fix the process, not resort to hasty, and destructive omnibus bills that trade away for political expediency deeply held American values, like Wilderness, wildlife protection, and democracy.
good guys and bad guys
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Mar 17, 2009 04:44 PM
Hi George -- Thanks for your comment. I don't like the Omni's process any more than you do, that's why I described it as a power play ... We disagree on other things, such as your wish to identify good guys and bad guys. I don't see good guys and bad guys in many of the Omni deals, and I think that view of one's political opponents is often unfair and unproductive. And the substance of what I know includes these facts: Major wilderness bills in the past, creating wilderness areas that are considered successes today, have included compromises such as motors. The Wilderness Act itself grandfathered in grazing that some wilderness advocates oppose. That's what politics often is -- making deals to satisfy a range of interests.
Mar 28, 2009 10:46 AM
George, you raise some good points here. However, your idea of democracy is pretty different from mine. In the development of the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness, over a span of eight years, many folks of many different interests sat down at the table and came to an agreement. There is no better example of grassroots democracy. I wonder if you think democracy is outside groups coming in after the collaborative process and pulling out pieces of the agreement that were important in getting everyone to come to consensus. Never mind that small sacrifices local environmental interests made resulted in the support of local communities and local politicians, which culminated in hundreds of thousands of wilderness in my home state. I guess there are some enviros who still prefer forcing their agenda on local communities in a top-down matter. That’s not democracy to me; it the exact opposite.
Gary Macfarlane
Gary Macfarlane
Mar 17, 2009 04:07 PM
Ray’s spin on the Omnibus bill—one dismissive of those with concerns about the bill--largely ignores an important story, that of profound fractures within the environmental movement. Environmentalists are usually loath to address those differences publicly, but they are real and growing. As has been noted in other posts, some (not all) wildernesses that would be designated in the bill have weakening provisions that essentially renege on the agreements made in the 1964 Wilderness Act. This is not new but this trend seems to have expanded in recent years. This trend is very controversial and HCN should explore it in an objective way.

Also, the bill includes a provision to promote massive thinning/logging projects on the national forests under the guise of restoration and for electrical generation from burning the material. This provision has received little public discussion and is premised on a view of forest ecology that may not be widely applicable across the national forest system. While this specific provision does require compliance with existing environmental laws, the assumptions surrounding could be profound. For example, the focus on a stakeholder model as a de facto decision making body and on the idea that national forests could or should provide biomass for electrical generation on a large scale are both steps in a direction that would result in a radical departure from current public land policy. These issues deserve careful scrutiny.
disagreements within the movement
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Mar 17, 2009 04:48 PM
Hi Gary -- Thanks for your comment too. I only had room to touch on the disagreements within the environmental movement ... glad we're getting into it within the comments ... -- Ray in Bozeman for HCN

About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.