For public lands, massive protections in defense bill

But not all conservation groups think the gains are worth the losses.


12/12/2014 update: The Senate passed this bill today, 89-11. It now goes to President Obama, who's expected to sign it.

The must-pass, $585-billion defense spending bill now before the Senate also includes about 70 public-lands measures. That’s the biggest package of public-lands bills since the huge omnibus act of 2009 (which designated 2 million acres of wilderness, among other things). The Senate is expected to pass the defense bill this week.

But it’s decidedly a mixed bag – with one hand, it adds about 250,000 acres of designated wilderness, while with the other hand, it transfers 110,000 acres into private ownership. It creates half a dozen new national parks, but appropriates no extra money to run them. It gives one Indian tribe more control over land, while taking sacred sites away from another tribe. It protects hundreds of thousands of acres from mining and drilling, but tells the Bureau of Land Management to fast-track grazing and energy permits.

Valles Caldera National Preserve, which could become a national park
Valles Caldera National Preserve could become a national park. PHOTO COURTESY FLICKR USER TODD SHOEMAKE

Despite the significant and painful compromises, most big green groups see the bill as an overall win, especially given prior Congressional inaction on conservation bills. But nearly 50 other environmental organizations, including WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, think it’s a net loss, and have sent a letter to Congress requesting that the lands measures be stripped from the defense bill. The Great Falls Tribune reports:

Calling the public lands package a "stealth" provision driven by provincial political considerations, the groups say the bills will result in logging, mining and grazing in exchange for modest wilderness protections. …

Other conservation groups are standing by the public lands package in the defense bill, despite misgivings about individual provisions ...

"Groups are free to draw their own conclusion, and I agree that there are problematic measures included," said Bozeman-based Peter Aengst, senior regional director for the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies region. "But overall we are supporting the package as it will secure significant conservation gains ..."

Here’s a listing of some of the major public-lands proposals in the defense bill.


  • Transfer more than 2,000 acres of public land in Arizona to mining giant Rio Tinto for the Resolution Copper mine, a deal the company has pursued for a decade. In return, the company would convey 5,000 acres to the federal government. But the land where the mine would be located contains sites sacred to the San Carlos Apache, and they and environmental groups oppose the swap, which failed two previous votes in the Senate.
  • Transfer 70,000 acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska corporation (made up of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Natives), mostly for logging and development. But more than 150,000 acres in the Tongass would be conserved for salmon habitat and wildlife.
    Grizzlies in the Tongass National Forest. COURTESY USFS
    Grizzlies in the Tongass National Forest. COURTESY USFS
  •  Return 5,000 acres of coal reserves to Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, which they lost to a surveying error in 1900. The current owner, Great Northern Properties, would in exchange be able to mine outside of the tribe’s land. Another 932 acres of tribally owned land would be placed in trust (but omitted is 635 acres near Bear Butte, a sacred site, that was included in an earlier version of this act).


  • Rocky Mountain Front: 275,000 acres of public land protected in western Montana, including 67,000 acres added to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses (this would be the state’s first new wilderness in 30 years). At the same time, though, wilderness study area protections would be released on 14,000 acres in southeast Montana, and other wilderness study areas would be assessed for oil and gas extraction.
  • Columbine-Hondo Wilderness: 45,000 acres in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico.
  • Alpine Lakes Wilderness: Expands that 394,000-acre Washington state wilderness by 22,100 acres, and designates sections of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as “Wild and Scenic.”
  • Hermosa Creek:  Protects the 108,000-acre Hermosa Creek Watershed in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado.
  • Wovoka Wilderness: 48,000 acres in Lyon County, Nevada. Also transfers 12,500 acres to the town of Yerington for economic development around a copper mine.
  • Pine Forest Range Wilderness: 26,000 acres in northwest Nevada.  


The National Parks Traveler summarizes the parks-related parts of the bill, which include:

  • Create the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
  • Designate the Coltsville National Historical Park in Connecticut.
  • Attach a preserve of 4,070 acres to Oregon Caves National Monument.
  • Establish Tule Springs National Monument near Las Vegas to preserve ancient fossils.
    Tule Springs fossil beds would be protected as a national monument. COURTESY NPCA
    Tule Springs fossil beds would be protected as a national monument. COURTESY NPCA
  • Transfer the 90,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service.
  • Expand Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi.
  • Consider historical designation for the trail of the African American Buffalo Soldiers, sent from San Francisco to guard the newly created Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in the early 1900s.
  • Require the NPS to study other sites to possibly include in the park system.
  • Prevent the NPS from giving donors naming rights to parks or facilities, endorsing the donor or their products or services, or calling them “official sponsors.” And for the NPS Centennial in 2016, the treasury will mint special collector’s coins that will raise money for the National Park Foundation.

Groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association are elated at what they're calling a "monumental" expansion of the parks system, as are communities and businesses near the new units.

The National Parks Traveler notes, though, that all those new and expanded parks require more money to operate – and the bill provides no new funding:

For the National Park Service, already billions of dollars in the red with its maintenance and operations budget, and cutting staff in crucial areas such as cultural resources, to be asked to add seven new national park units, adjust the boundaries of nine units, and redesignate two of those units, without any new funding, is incredibly poor legislating by Congress and will not enhance, but rather degrade the overall system.

This is not to judge the worthiness of the prospective units as part of the National Park System, but rather to point out the fiscal absurdity in play. Congressional Budget Office figures show it would cost the Park Service at least $75 million over a five-year period to get these units up and running, and millions more to operate them on an annual basis. At the same time, the Park Service's maintenance backlog has crept up to $11.3 billion, and some of those needs are critical.

Coincidentally, the defense bill does include a $75 million appropriation -- to support Ukraine, where nearly 4,500 have been killed since last spring in a civil war.


  • The Grazing Improvement Act would automatically extend grazing permits on public lands from 10 to 20 years, and allow those permits to be renewed even before environmental review is complete. This provision, says conservation groups, will further degrade the sagebrush plains that the greater sage grouse depends on, thwarting its conservation and increasing the need to list it under the Endangered Species Act. (The “Cromnibus” spending agreement would further harm grouse by preventing Interior from putting Gunnison sage grouse or greater sage grouse on the endangered species list for another year.) And this version of the grazing act omits provisions that would have allowed voluntary retirement of grazing permits in Oregon and New Mexico.
  • The Cabin Fee Act would put an upper limit on federal fees charged to lease cabins in national forests.
  • A BLM pilot program to speed up the process for oil and gas permits would become permanent.
  • Irrigation districts would be allowed to develop hydropower on Bureau of Reclamation ditches and canals.

The defense bill and all its provisions, good, bad and really ugly, isn’t quite a done deal yet. But every public-lands bill within it has already been reviewed in committee and 30 have  passed the House, while seven have passed the Senate.

Representatives cannot offer any amendments to the defense bill, thanks to a special agreement, and there’s been little debate as Congress pushes to get this crucial package passed before it adjourns for the year. “The top Republican on defense issues, Sen. Jim Inhofe, said that there’s lots in the bill to dislike but said objectors were going to have to swallow it because it’s too late to alter the legislation,” writes Burgess Everett at Politico.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the House Natural Resource Committee, is also urging its passage: “We don’t need to start over, working on the same bills in a new Congress." But a few conservative senators are still promising a fight over public-lands “pork". And White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the Washington Post that “we’re going to evaluate the whole package” before President Obama decides whether to sign the bill.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.

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