Wilderness bills languish in legislative limbo

  • Beauty Mountain Wilderness, an area in California's Northern San Diego County, would grow by more than 13,000 acres, under the proposed Beauty Mountian and Agua Tibia Wilderness Act, introduced by Republican Darryl Issa.

    Douglas Steakley; courtesy Friends of the River

Like a sausage maker inured to the sights and smells of his job, anyone who dabbles in lawmaking expects un-pleasantries: Negotiations will seem endless, and compromise will be painful. But lately in the nation's Capitol, legislators have had to grapple with a new stink: Even the most hard-fought deals are indefinitely lodged in legislative limbo.

Wilderness bills that would have once passed with relative ease are among the victims of this gridlock. Congressmen deeply suspicious of the federal government and generally hostile toward new wilderness now control key committees and exercise enough power that even conservative Republicans can't get their own wilderness bills through the GOP-controlled House. In the Democrat-led Senate, bills that do hurdle past committee are often blocked with the threat of filibuster. Congress hasn't passed a single wilderness bill in nearly three years. Among the 22 bills currently languishing are a proposal by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to protect 21,000 acres in San Diego County, and a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to expand a Washington wilderness area.

"I think this is emblematic, to a great degree, of what a disaster Congress is," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

Since the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness has been "for the most part a local and regional issue," says Tim Mahoney, policy director of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign for America's Wilderness. If a local congressional delegation reached an agreement, "they might need to negotiate it somewhat with the administration, but (other congressmen) would generally defer to the desire of the senators of the state."

That shifted in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years, and Republicans -- most famously Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- began to threaten to block any wilderness or federal land bills by dragging out the debate, a tactic known as filibuster. Today, there is virtually no opportunity to pass individual lands bills, says Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society. Filibuster threats aside, a wilderness bill may require a week of floor debate and, with Congress so focused on the budget and economy, that seems a week they can ill afford. "The Senate committee continues to turn out bills, but they can't get taken up on the floor," Spitler says.

One way to break this cycle is to bundle bills together into an omnibus bill -- a sort of legislative casserole. A March 2009 omnibus lumped 160 federal-lands bills together -- enough to compete for floor time, attract bipartisan support and overcome opposition from folks like Coburn. While there has been some effort to craft a second omnibus lands bill in the Senate, one side or another has blocked it.

In the House, Spitler believes, "it's pure philosophical opposition that is preventing bills from moving forward." Representatives like Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, say that most of the land that should be wilderness already is. They're disinclined to introduce new restrictions to multiple-use federal lands.

Of course, opposition to any particular bill doesn't necessarily imply that a politician or Congress is against wilderness protection in principle. However, most of the high-profile proposals caught in the jam are the result of years of negotiations, and though not without controversy, enjoy wide support at home.
In Idaho, for instance, Johnson's group has closely partnered with Rep. Mike Simpson -- a Republican who, along with Issa, made the L.A. Times' editorial board's 2011 top 10 "Enemies of the Earth" list -- to create the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. It would designate 330,000 acres of new wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains; meanwhile, 132,000 acres would lose wilderness study area status. Managers would no longer have to protect the wilderness characteristics of those lands. It would also offer economic development grants to local communities, and allow ranchers to donate grazing allotments for retirement and be compensated by private funds.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a bill so well worked through," Johnson says. When it was first introduced in 2004, the bill's opponents were idealistic left-leaning conservationists who felt that compromises, such as allowing motorized use and transferring some lands out of the public domain, went too far. "We spent time addressing those concerns and now we are challenged from the right" -- opposed by Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, R, a Tea Partier who unseated Democrat Walt Minnick in 2010, and Sen. Jim Risch, R, once the bill's co-sponsor, who dropped his support in 2010 over the issue of motorized access.

"(It) is not a perfect bill," wrote Simpson in a statement posted to his website. "Some folks would have you believe that CIEDRA isn't necessary -- or that it doesn't go far enough to protect this land -- but most Idahoans know that the best response to a problem is to find a solution. After years of collaboration and compromise, I know that CIEDRA is that solution."

In Montana, the Forest Jobs and Recreation act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D, is, like Simpson's proposal, designed to satisfy traditionally competing interests. It would designate new wilderness, ensure some continued access for motorized recreation, and guarantee that a certain number of acres would be available for thinning and logging.

"I've done probably 100 meetings, visiting with sportsmen's organizations, environmental groups, timber interests, ranchers, watershed groups," says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited, one of the proposal's local movers-and-shakers. The bill was heard twice in the Senate, but hasn't progressed. Farling's frustration is palpable: "Politicians tell you, 'You people work it out, we'll take your ideas to Congress.' We've worked something out here and there are people in Congress who don't want to reward it."

It's enough to make one wonder: Why bother? But Farling insists the work is not in vain. "The Forest Service is (already) trying some of the things we're suggesting in the bill." For example, the bill emphasizes "stewardship contracts," which knit restoration work to timber contracts, and advocates consulting collaborative advisory groups when forming management plans. Similarly, Johnson believes the still-stalled Boulder-White Clouds deal has already done a lot of good. For instance, it's provided a model that's been put to use elsewhere for wilderness proposals that are light on ideological purity but heavy on stakeholder input and compromise.

Many wilderness proponents hold out hope that the anti-fed fervor will eventually subside, and the center of American politics reclaimed, so good bills can pass. But, says Johnson, the current trajectory "has been challenging to my optimism."

Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe
Mar 06, 2012 01:22 PM
In New Mexico we've worked for 4 years to make a basic administrative change to the Valles Caldera National Preserve which has an experimental management scheme promoted by long retired Senator Domenici that everyone agrees doesn't work. A bill to transfer the VCNP to the National Park Service has near unanimous support from all interest groups in New Mexico and our Senators have championed it for us. But the bill does not move. It is blocked in a chess game with bills to clearcut the Tongas National Forest in Alaska or to open a new open pit copper mine in Arizona on national forest land with no environmental reviews. Democrats won't agree to extreme bills and our popular bill is held hostage.

The Senate doesn't work. It is where Democracy goes to die in Washington. No wonder Senator Bingaman and Snowe want to retire. That being said, an omnibus bill is likely this year because there is such a backlog of public lands bills pushing against the obstruction the GOP has erected.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Mar 07, 2012 02:57 PM
Claiming that the obstruction of partisan politics is preventing proposed wilderness legislation from advancing is false and misleading. Attempting to ram legislation through with an omnibus bill that has such long-term effects as wilderness legislation is devastating to public access and national interest.

I submit to you that the REAL reasons are much simpler:

- Wilderness legislation submitted in the last 10 years has paid little attention to the requirements of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This fair and bi-partisan legislation created legal guidelines that are not being followed - in fact, one wonders if the current sponsors of wilderness legislation even bothered to read the statutes created by this law at all.
- The management of Wilderness Study Areas as de-facto wilderness and the controversy of the Department of the Interior's failed Wild Lands Policy (Sec Order 3310) has created poor relations within departments of the government, local communities, and commercial interests. These areas have been studied for decades. Few of them qualify for wilderness designation. These studies have been complete for years. The clamor for these areas to advance to full wilderness status is one-sided, false and misleading. It is this conduct that creates the controversy. The committees that fail to advance these bills review the facts. Natural Resources is denying these bills based on facts, not partisan politics. The Senate committee is chaired by and has a Democratic majority, for goodness sake, yet still the bills fail. Wake up, people! They are being rejected by FACTS and TESTIMONY in public committee, not back room partisan politics. The partisan divide is a smokescreen.
- The boundaries drawn by current proposed legislation are arbitrary, unstudied, and not backed by local communities. They in fact appear to directly block vital infrastructure and energy development, not protect the environment or define wilderness quality lands.

I submit to you that even the simplest inquiry into the facts surrounding any and all current wilderness legislation will not pass the tests mandated by law, show that it is a massive land grab by radical environmental interests, and the funniest part of all, represents a group of lawmakers pandering to these interests to obtain blocs of votes. The environmental and conservation-oriented organizations are being played for political gain. When proper study is done, ethical boundaries are drawn, and existing law is followed, we will find that there are lands that deserve this designation - unfortunately, it will include very little of what is proposed by current legislation because the data they are based on was not developed properly. If you want wilderness, put it in the hands of independent researchers that are NOT associated with the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society - use trained landscape engineers.