Rid(er)ing into the sunset


Last week's heavily wrangled 2011 federal spending deal brought with it some unexpected baggage. Along with $38 billion in budget cuts, unrelated riders attached to the bill derailed the controversial Bureau of Land Management Wild Lands order and yanked Northern Rockies gray wolves from the endangered species list. Deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and climate-related programs were also part of the bill, which marked the largest single reduction in federal domestic spending in history.

Democrats claimed a Pyrrhic victory after doing damage control on the House version of the bill, which had included more severe cuts and a rider to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. But major cuts in health, education and  environmental protections remain after negotiations, clearly favoring the Republican agenda.

Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson's rider to halt funding to the BLM Wild Lands order was delivered with high rhetoric on its impacts to ranching, energy production and recreation.“To that list, I would add my own deep concern that with this initiative, the Department has overstepped its authority,” he noted in a statement Tuesday. "Only Congress has the authority to create new land designations, and I intend to restore that authority by including this provision in the (continuing resolution).”

But the BLM Wild Lands order, announced in December, simply gave guidance to the BLM to inventory "lands with wilderness characteristics" and protect eligible "Wild Lands" -- a designation that would not actually preclude development -- through a public planning process. The Wild Lands order restored BLM's original authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 to manage public land for multiple uses after a 2003 Bush administration policy prioritized development, according to the Department of Interior.

What, exactly, Wild Lands have to do with the federal budget is unclear, as is the rationale to bypass the public process and delist an endangered species through Congress -- another first in U.S. history. Upon passage of the spending resolution, management of Northern Rockies gray wolves will be turned back to Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah, while the Wyoming wolf management plan must first get federal approval. Introduced by rider-happy Rep. Simpson, and Sen. John Tester, D-MT, the wolf rider also bans "judicial review" of the delisting measure, apparently side-stepping future court challenges.

“Tester’s rider is not only a disaster for wolf recovery, it opens the door for every self-interested politician to try to strip protection away from local endangered species,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of The Center for Biological Diversity in a press release on Tuesday.

Aside from those provisions, the spending bill itself also slashed a laundry list of health and environmental programs.

  • EPA's budget was cut by 16 percent -- $1.6 billion -- mostly from state-level programs, including $997 million from the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds that help communities maintain clean drinking water and sewer systems.
  • Climate change programs took a wallop as well, losing $49 million for EPA and the Department of Interior, while the proposed Climate Service under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was chopped completely, hampering efforts to accurately gauge the effects of climate change.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund, used to set aside land for recreation and conservation purposes, lost $149 million, after being spared an additional $100 million cut that was in the House version of the bill.
  • Energy efficiency and renewable energy programs at the Department of Energy were cut by $438 million.


The 2011 spending resolution will be put to a House vote today and will then head back to the Senate for a final vote. Negotiations on a 2012 budget plan are already underway, promising yet another round of consequential political theater.

Nathan Rice is an intern for High Country News.

Photo of gray wolf in Yellowstone courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.