Bad bills on the rise


Two bills being considered in the House continue Republican-led efforts to weaken environmental protections.

HR. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, would drop protections on at least 43 million acres of public land. Roadless national forest lands and wilderness study areas would be "released" for unfettered access to off-highway vehicles, oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging.  Those uses are already allowed on more than half of the nation's public lands.

Offroaders are ecstatic at the prospect, reports Motorcyclist Online:

These bills would remove the riding ban on 6.7 million acres managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management and riding restrictions that may be in place for 36.1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land. …

The (American Motorcyclist Association) and (All-Terrain Vehicle Association) support appropriate Wilderness designations that meet the criteria established by the Wilderness Act of 1964. … For years, anti-access groups have used WSAs and other tactics to inappropriately keep responsible riders (emphasis mine) off public land that is well suited for motorized recreation.

Hmm. What about "irresponsible riders"? No mention of what sort of access is appropriate for that regrettably large user group. Motorized use has a place on public lands -- if riders stay on designated trails and refrain from "mud bogging"  and similarly destructive activities. But growing numbers of riders aren't content to "restrict" themselves in such ways.

These groups seem to view the management of public lands as a strict dichotomy. They'll admit that a (very small) amount of public land may be protected as Wilderness With a Capital W provided it meets the very strict standards of the Act; every bit of the rest, they claim, should be thrown open to every possible use.

And then there's H.R. 2584, the 2012 Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. This bill goes way beyond determining spending, as appropriations acts are supposed to do – it's saddled with 38 riders that would weaken key environmental laws. It's a cynical use of legislation intended to provide funding for Interior and EPA that instead would seriously undermine the work they do. Fortunately it's so extreme it's not likely to pass the House, and if by some chance it makes it to Obama's desk, he's already said he'll veto it.

The bill would cut Interior funding by $715 million, to $9.9 billion. EPA would get $1.5 billion less than this year, for a total of $7.1 billion.

Among other provisions, the riders would:

  • prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries for one year and exempt some agricultural activities from reporting emissions
  • block regulations meant to protect waterways from mountaintop-removal coal mining
  • prevent “navigable waterways” from being redefined under the Clean Water Act (a change that would lessen protections for drinking water)
  • streamline permitting for offshore drilling off Alaska
  • cut nearly 80 percent from the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • open lands next to the Grand Canyon for uranium mining

Greenwire sums up the atmosphere that spawned these bills nicely:

Jim Dornan, a longtime lobbyist on appropriations issues, said rider-laden appropriations bills like the Interior and Environment bill are a symptom of a much broader problem -- a Congress too politically polarized to legislate.

"They can't pass these bills as freestanding (legislation) anymore," he said.

Dornan said that hardening political bases in both parties and a consolidation of power within the leadership had stripped subcommittee chairmen of some of the ownership they once had over their bills.

"These are not fiefdoms anymore," Dornan said. "Those riders are not the chairman's desire in most cases. They are leadership's desire. And the chairman, if he wants to remain chairman, in most cases has to placate leadership."

Appropriations committee ranking members Norm Dicks, D-Wa., and James P. Moran, D-Va.,, said that Simpson appeared to be under pressure from leadership to include anti-regulatory riders in his bill, because they are popular with the Republican base.

More proof that our current political system is pretty seriously broken. And one of the most cogent analyses of how to fix it is in this month's Atlantic, written by former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards. Well worth a read.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr use EronsPics.

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