There’s renewed movement in Congress on some legislation that would affect our public lands in a big way. Bills to create wilderness areas, combat bark beetles and streamline mining and grazing will be debated, and despite having “improvement” and “protection” in their names, not all would not encourage sustainable or resilient ecosystems in the West.
Of the handful of land bills that passed in the last Congress, none protected public land or established new wilderness (for first the first time in decades). In this 113th Congress, whether or not they are controversial, the bills will compete for divided attentions and scant dollars. Public support and feedback can make a difference.
These bills would bolster conservation in the West and deserve support:
Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA): Since this law was first passed in 2000, it has enabled the purchase of 18,000 acres of valuable conservation land adjacent to federal parcels and the sale of roughly 26,000 acres of “low value” federal land. Before FLTFA expired in July 2011 land sales earned the Bureau of Land Management $115 million. Over 100 conservation, recreation and sportsmen’s groups have praised reauthorization of the act and it has bi-partisan support.
Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2013: This bill, reintroduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), pairs conservation and timber harvests. S. 268 establishes 677,000 acres as wilderness in Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai and Lolo national forests, and mandates the harvest of at least 10,000 acres of trees per year for the next decade as part of broader restoration projects. Tester conceived the bill, he says, to accelerate the recovery of those forest habitats and their watersheds from the bark beetle epidemic. The legislation, whose supporters include loggers, recreationists and conservationists, will also secure access for hunting, angling, camping and motorized recreation. Learn more and comment on the bill.
Good Neighbor Forestry Act: Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) first introduced this bill in 2009 to expand (from Colorado and Utah to all Western states) collaboration between federal agencies and state foresters. S. 327 would allow those entities to work together to do forest stewardship and to restore landscapes affected by wildfires and bark beetles, thereby improving wildlife habitat and watershed health. The bill has broad support from co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.
Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act: Although it’s been around for nearly 50 years, and has enjoyed significant bi-partisan support during that time, it’s going to take a fight to renew this bill. In the last Congress, lawmakers were close to tacking language onto a transportation bill that would have at least partially funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) over the next two years, but it was removed by fiscal conservatives.
The fund, which is administered with royalties (which total several billions of dollars each year) from offshore oil and gas drilling, has been used historically to establish conservation easements on private working lands, acquire new federal lands and fund local conservation projects. It also protects access to public lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor activities.
Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Richard Burr (R-NC) reintroduced a bill to fully fund the LWCF at its Congressionally-authorized level of $900 million annually. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is another co-sponsor of the bill. Comment on the bill.
Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act: This piece of legislation was first introduced by Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) and co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in 2011. The 212th Congress adjourned without voting on it.
The Act would boost protection for over 275,000 acres of public land, mostly within Lewis and Clark National Forest and including some Bureau of Land Management holdings. Just over 208,000 acres would be designated as a “Conservation Management Area” (CMA), a term created to describe a space where use would essentially be frozen at current levels. Existing grazing leases, forest thinning, motorized vehicles access and other recreation including hunting, hiking and biking would be protected.
The new bill would limit the building of new roads and emphasizes “responsible grazing practices.” It would permanently protect this area from oil and gas development. Existing O&G leases on 29,000 acres adjacent to Glacier National Park would be relinquished as part of a voluntary agreement with five energy companies.
The bill has the support of state government agencies and hundreds of sportsmen, wildlife and other recreation organizations. Of the Act, Baucus said, “We’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better investment than to protect the Rocky Mountain Front.” Opponents criticize the CMA designation for limiting access, ranching and mineral exploration. Learn more about and comment on the bill.
San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act: A patchwork of public lands in southwestern Colorado would be protected under S. 341, which was first introduced in 2009 by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).
These 61,000 acres in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties would protect big game habitat and a number of sensitive species including the Gunnison sage grouse, Canada lynx and Colorado River cutthroat trout. The three-prong bill would add roughly 33,000 acres to the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas, designate a new 22,000-acre McKenna Peak wilderness area and withdraw 6,600 acres of Naturita Canyon from future mining and mineral claims. The bill would not affect current authorized uses of these areas, including some motorized recreation and heli-skiing on Sheep Mountain.
Local leaders (including each involved county’s Board of Commissioners), local businesses, sportsmen and conservationists have supported the bill. Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district encompasses these lands, has remained ambivalent about the bill and at least one local leader criticizes it for limiting mining in the region, including digging for rare earth minerals. Learn more about the bill and comment on it.
These bills would weaken environmental laws and public comment process:
Grazing Improvement Act of 2013: The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 17,000 grazing leases and permits on over 160 million acres of public land in the West . The Forest Service manages livestock grazing on an additional 94 million acres.
In combination with S. 258, which was introduced in early February, this legislation (H.R. 657) would require the BLM and USFS to issue grazing permits faster and to double the length of permits from 10 to 20 years. Both agencies also would have expanded authority to issue categorical conclusions.
This emphasis on speed would significantly diminish the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act and cut down on public comment opportunities, making it difficult for those agencies to protect the pubic land under their purview. While it may ultimately ease their workload, both agencies have opposed the bill because they believe it would threaten their ability to safeguard public lands from overuse. Comment on the bill.
National Strategic and Critical Minerals Protection Act of 2013: This bill, introduced by Mark Amodei, (R-NV), is being sold as a way to more efficiently develop minerals domestically by streamlining the permitting process for mining projects by coordinating the work of federal, state and tribal agencies.
The trouble is it would do so by elevating mining on public lands (which are managed for multiple uses) above all other uses. H.R. 4402 would curtail public comment, weaken key environmental laws and make resisting new hardrock mining operations extremely difficult. Various recreation activities on public lands across the country would be threatened. It’s likely this bill will pass the House but resistance in the Senate could stall it. Find and contact your Senator to comment on the bill.
Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.