Enviros suffer first major setback in Obama era


The environmental movement has just fallen short of a major goal, for the first time in the new green-trending era of President Barack Obama and the ramped-up Democrats in Congress.

The stakes of this national battle are mostly on Western ground. It's the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 -- the biggest public lands move in decades, trying to designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness, plus new national parks and monuments, park expansions, wild and scenic rivers, remarkable trails etc.

The enviros have been aching to make this power play -- 164 bills wedged into a single package of more than 1,200 pages. Many of the bills got stalled in the ungreen era of the previous president, Republican George W. Bush, and previous sessions of Congress run by other ungreen Republicans.

The Omni indicates that enviros may be getting heady and overreaching. It also reveals new alignments in Western politics -- mainly the increasing fractures in the Republican Party.


Every Western Democrat in the House and Senate has voted for the Omni.

And Western Republicans split 30-13 over the Omni, with these voting YES:

California Rep. Mary Bono Mack
California Rep. David Dreier
California Rep. Jerry Lewis
California Rep. Buck McKeon
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch
Washington Rep. David Reichert
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi

The Omni's terms would be felt almost entirely in the West, including ...

California -- 750,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, mountains, redwoods)

Colorado -- 450,000 acres of wilderness (canyons and mountains)

Idaho -- 500,000 acres of wilderness (deserts and canyons)

New Mexico -- 16,000 acres of wilderness plus protections for dinosaur tracks and a cave formation

Oregon -- 200,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, forests, wildflower meadows)

Utah -- 235,000 acres of wilderness (canyon country)

Wyoming -- 1.2 million acres of national forest would be off limits to future oil and gas drilling

The Omni would also launch the National Landscape Conservation System -- providing added protection for 26 million acres of the best Bureau of Land Management holdings, also a Western thing.

The Republican infighting includes:

In Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz voted against the Omni. But both of Utah's senators voted for it.

In Wyoming, the lone House member, Cynthia Lummis, voted against the Omni. But both of Wyoming's senators voted for it.

In Washington, an often green Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert in metro Seattle, supports the Omni. But inland, two ungreen Republican Congressmen oppose it.

The Omni vote also describes Arizona:

Both of Arizona's Republican senators and all of its Republican House members oppose the Omni. That indicates Arizona has the weakest local environmental movement in the West and the most ideological Republicans in Congress.

The Wilderness Society sums up the Omni's basic terms.

The enviros pushing the Omni include nationals, like TWS and Trout Unlimited, and locals like the Southern Utah Wilderness Association. Some have included consensus politics, allying with some Republicans on wilderness deals that would transfer federal land to local governments and private developers. There are also naked water-development projects -- the Omni has something for nearly every public-lands interest, other than die-hard right-wing or left-wing ideologues.

Sponsored by two Western Democrats -- New Mexico's Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid -- the Omni slid through the Senate in January by a lopsided vote (66-12)

Another Western Democrat -- Calif. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who runs the House -- led the effort to push it through her chamber on March 11. She feared that the Omni is so many faceted, it might not survive open debate and amendments. So she invoked a special rule that choked off discussion and amendments. But under that rule, she had to get two-thirds of the House members to OK the package. And the vote came down 282-144 -- two votes shy of two-thirds (reported by AP and the Environment News Service).

Gun-rights versus gun-control figured in the vote -- as usual (see AP and Gun Owners of America). So did the ideologues who specialize in opposing any federal land or federal regulation.

Here's an angry Western editorial about the mess.

Omni backers vow to bring it up again in the House. But they'll need to persuade two opponents to change sides. Or they'll have to open up the Omni for debate and amendments, which would probably mean exploding it into many pieces and involving the Senate again -- countless complications.

From the Omni, we see that enviros can count on the Democratic Party on public-lands deals. And they're making inroads in the Republican Party, even though they're not quite where they need to be for something this huge.

Utah's Rep. Bishop -- reportedly shouting -- and Utah's Rep. Chaffetz express some of their reasons for opposing the Omni -- the need to drill the land that Wyoming's senators want to protect, for instance. And Wyoming's Rep. Lummis would also like to drill there.

Idaho's Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican who's worked seven years on the Owyhee wilderness deal, which is in the Omni, laments the conflicts in NewWest.net:

(Crapo) believes the process for landing legislative approval has turned into an unproductive, conflict-based melee that wastes time, money, and goodwill between people.

It'll be interesting to see how the fractures and shifts continue to play out in the West. Right now, we have the hardline green Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance allied with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch!


About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.