Western Repubs remain split as Omni wilderness deals pass


It required additional amazing tricky moves by Democrats running Congress.

But finally, culminating more than a year of wrangling, today the House of Representatives approved the substance of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The Senate approved it most recently on March 19. President Obama will certainly sign it.

Many of the Big Greens -- mainstream environmental groups -- are celebrating victory. The Omni is the most remarkable package of federal-lands deal-making in decades. A sample of their cheers includes a map showing the Omni's many wilderness designations in the West.

It's worth noting here, the Big Greens and the Democratic leadership had to use questionable tactics. First they rolled about 170 bills into a single package, then they tried to get it passed with no discussion -- and failed. I blogged about that power play. Then they hollowed out something called the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Battlefield Protection Act, stuffed the Omni into it, and slid that masquerade through Senate and House. No kidding. Bill Schneider at NewWest.net describes the tactics.

Can you imagine the reaction if the opposition used such tricks? The Greens and Dems would be howling.

Such is politics.

Meanwhile, the final Omni votes continue to show some interesting splits.

The West's Republicans came down 32-11 in the final Omni round ...

These 11 Western Repubs voted YES:

California Rep. Mary Bono Mack
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

(Every Western Democrat in the Senate and House also voted YES.)

Thus in the Omni, we can see how Republicans can be brought to the table to negotiate federal land compromises, as has happened in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

To recap, the Republican infighting includes: In Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz voted against the Omni. In Wyoming, the lone House member, Cynthia Lummis, voted against the Omni. But all four Republican senators in those states voted for it.

The Omni vote also describes the weakness of the environmental movement in Arizona: Both of Arizona's Republican senators and all of its Republican House members opposed the Omni.

A couple of cool maps display the votes in the Senate and the House (scroll down the right-hand margins to find the maps).

The Omni's opposition came from typical anti-federal groups and motorheads who want no regulations, and more. The environmental movement also splintered -- a bit -- over it.

Wilderness Watch, a purist group based in Missoula, Mont., opposed the Omni, warning:

The 1,246-page (Omni) contains … 15 separate wilderness bills. Many of the wilderness bills are relatively clean, meaning they don’t contain special provisions that will diminish the integrity of wilderness. However, at least two of the bills -- the Owyhee in Idaho, and the Washington County, Utah bills -- contain numerous harmful provisions that would open these areas to inappropriate activities such as the routine use of ATVs for herding livestock, motor vehicle use (including aircraft) and habitat manipulation by state fish and game agencies, and other damaging activities.

The head of Wilderness Watch, George Nickas, commented on my previous Omni post, so I phoned him. Nickas says the opposition also included a few forest groups, the Alaska chapter of The Wilderness Society (which apparently got overruled by that group's bosses in D.C.), and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The Alaska and refuge angles are here.

Nickas uses the term "Big Greens." He says:

"I recognize there are a lot of good things in (the Omni), but unfortunately the price we paid was too high. And we didn't have to pay it. The environmental community in D.C. -- the Big Greens -- that were pushing it didn't do anything to get the bad provisions out. Our side never pushed for amendments. We gave up a lot we didn't have to give up …

"And this isn't 1980, (the old days) when if you didn't designate a wilderness immediately, it would be roaded and clear-cut. Most of the areas that were designated (in the Omni) weren't even threatened. Many of them are in national parks. It's not like these areas were going to fall to the chainsaw or be bulldozed next weekend if we didn't get them designated (right now in the Omni) ...

"(The Big Greens) don't even talk about the bad provisions … you don't see it in any of their p.r."

I'm not saying where I stand. Just closing with another observation: Even as the Omni delivers many good things on the ground, it also demonstrates the need for the 2009 Big Greens to show some success.

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.