At the last minute, out of the quagmire of the 105th Congress came word that the federal government is plunking down a $40 million down payment on the sprawling Baca Ranch in New Mexico (HCN, 8/3/98).


In a Congress with few environmental victories, environmentalists were happy to put this one in the win column: "A year ago we had zero money," says Jeremy Kruger of the National Parks and Conservation Association in Albuquerque, N.M. "Now we have $40 million."


There's little else in the hastily packaged 7,000-page omnibus budget bill to cheer over, however, even though many of the worst environmental offenders were struck from spending packages early on.


"It's a pretty ugly collection," says Greg Wetstone, the legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. It wasn't until Congress passed the bill that environmentalists, and even members of Congress, discovered exactly what it contained. Some measures, such as a rewritten version of the Quincy Library Bill, were never debated on the floor of the House or Senate before they were attached as riders (see story page 4). Since the measures slipped through late in the session, the public didn't have the chance to learn the details of what might soon become law.


"All this was happening in the dark," Wetstone says. "What we see is an unprecedented abandonment of the democratic process on legislating environmental issues."


And that, he says, is how Congress passed measures that couldn't have made it through as stand-alone legislation. Anti-environmental riders leave a trail across the West; here's a sampling of what slipped through in the final days.


* A failed deal between the administration and Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, R, means that removal of the Elwha River dams on Washington's Olympic Peninsula will not begin this fiscal year. Gorton had been willing to back deconstruction of the dams on the coastal Elwha River in exchange for a congressional measure that would have made it difficult to remove any dams in the Columbia River Basin. The administration rejected the arrangement, and Gorton cut funding for the Elwha project.


* Though new and stricter BLM hardrock mining regulations are ready, a rider puts them on hold for another year while the National Academy of Sciences studies the new rules.


"Basically, there is no need to study it," says Dan Randolph of the Mineral Policy Center. "It's just a stall tactic."


* Another rider stalls for nine years a new clean-air program for the national parks. It's a frustrating blow to clean-air advocates.


"We have the ability and the technology and the knowledge to protect park air right now," says Dave Simon of the NPCA in Albuquerque, N.M. "It's the worst kind of political meddling."


* Dustin Solberg