Welcome back to my coverage of “race-to-the-bottom 2012,” wherein I gripe futilely about this year’s toxic politics (see past editions here and here), which appear to be completely allergic to anything that protects the environment or public health.

Our story today begins in March of 2009, when Congress passed the landmark, years-in-the-making Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. As HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring reported at the time, the measure “felt like a ghost from the golden age of the environmental movement, the 1970s, when Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass major environmental laws.”

Among the 166 conservation and natural resource deals enabled by that behemoth bill were the designation of more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers and more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, special terms for negotiating the retirement of public lands grazing allotments and the creation of new national trails. Many of the deals were the products of years of collaboration across party lines and among disparate stakeholders, in particular for Idaho’s Owyhee canyon region and  Utah’s Washington County.

When the bill finally did pass, greens’ worst worries had to do with whether too many concessions were awarded to grease the political wheels for conservation deals.

Fast forward to the latest, Republican-driven public lands omnibus bill -- the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, which was to hit the House floor last night. Pretty much the only clear-cut conservation you’ll find is the title reference. Yay, Congress! (Note sarcasm.) Among the 14 bills bundled within the measure are:

  • The now infamous National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, introduced by Rob Bishop, R-Utah, which would give broad access to and authority over federal lands within 100 miles of the Canada and Mexico borders to the Department of Homeland Security. Among the environmental laws waived by the measure are The Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Noise Control Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and the National Parks and Recreation Act, among others (including the 1872 Mining Act ... go figure). Never mind, of course, that the nonpartisan federal Government Accountability Office has found that  environmental laws don’t really inhibit border security, or that the Department of Homeland Security denies the need for such broad authority, points out  The National Parks Traveler’s Kurt Repanshek. The measure may become a wedge in the Republican Party this fall, since it stands to alienate sportsmen. It may even come to play in Montana’s hot Senate race between incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg.
  • The controversial Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), which would cede some 65,000 acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation. Environmentalist opponents charge that the corporation will clearcut important old growth forest and engage “in the selective logging practice known as high-grading -- disproportionately taking the biggest, oldest trees. This practice, the advocates say, not only destroys wildlife habitat and contributes to soil erosion but releases climate-warming carbon into the atmosphere during processing,” reports Planet Ark. Sealaska counters that under the bill, it would give up parts of the Tongass “that have only old-growth forest, and take instead lands already in use for timber with up to 50 percent second-growth trees,” and that the land transfer would right longstanding wrongs against the region’s native people (the corporation represents 21,000 Native shareholders). On Friday, a group of more than 300 scientists sent Congress a letter opposing the bill; E.O. Wilson, a sort of rock star among conservation biology literati, was among the signatories (sub required).
  • Other highlights (lowlights?), reports Environment & Energy Daily (sub required), include “a proposal … to expand funding for shooting ranges on public lands, … a bipartisan proposal (to) overturn a National Park Service travel plan restricting motorized travel on a North Carolina seashore to protect endangered birds and turtles … and (a proposal to) shorten environmental reviews of grazing across millions of acres of public lands.”

No word yet on the bill’s chances for passing, but its tone is not particularly surprising for this session’s anti-conservation Congress, where even Republican-sponsored wilderness bills don’t stand a chance.

"It's an equal opportunity offender, from our perspective, in the expanse of what they're trying to propose," Natural Resources Defense Council senior public lands analyst Bobby McEnaney told E&E daily of the latest omnibus measure. "It looks like Republicans are trying to hit the Earth with an asteroid."

Sarah Gilman is High Country News associate editor

Image shows the Rio Grande River running through Big Bend National Park -- one of many parcels of public land that would be affected by the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. Courtesy of Flickr user Treye Rice / Photography and Web Design

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