Flood bill awash with anti-environmental riders

 

As Congress rushes to pass a flood-relief bill, lawmakers are tossing controversial pieces of legislation into the mix in hopes of floating them through unnoticed. The bill itself would provide $5.6 billion in relief money to flood victims and ranchers who lost livestock to bitter winter weather. But the worst of its riders could send bulldozers barrelling over endangered species habitat and through national parks and wilderness areas.

One rider, introduced by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, takes a shot at federal control of public lands. If it passes it will resurrect RS 2477, a Civil War-era law that made it easy for settlers to build roads on federal lands (HCN, 3/21/94).

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the move "devastating." He told Stevens the rider "could effectively render the federal government powerless to prevent the conversion of footpaths, dogsled trails, jeep tracks, ice roads, and other primitive transportation routes into paved highways." He has recommended a veto if the bill hits the president's desk with the rider still attached.

Stevens' measure is particularly worrisome in states such as Montana and Utah, where RS 2477 claims threaten wilderness study areas, wilderness areas, national parks and monuments. Interior estimates there are more than 6,000 road claims in Utah alone.

Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called the right-of-way rider "a personal invitation to county commissioners to fire up the road graders and head into the wilderness."

Despite the opposition, the Senate voted 51-49 to reject a measure that would have removed the right-of-way rider. The measure was not included in the House version of the bill. The final bill will be worked out in conference this week.

There are signs that the tide is turning against it and similar riders. Some Republicans are breaking ranks to join Democrats in less controversial territory.

This proved true when 54 House Republicans helped trash a rider that would have exempted a wide array of flood control measures from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The measure, backed by House Resource Committee Chair Don Young, another Alaska Republican, was blasted by environmentalists as "lawless levees," a replay of last year's salvage logging rider, dubbed "lawless logging" by critics.

The House opted instead for a measure that exempts dam and levee repairs only in federal disaster areas. The Senate promptly adopted similar language.

"Don Young is apoplectic. He had his lunch handed to him," said Bill Snape, of Defenders of Wildlife, who sees the vote as a major turning point. "We're back in the ballpark," he says, "rather than out in the parking lot where we were with the last Congress."

The White House has asked Congress to remove six "extraneous' riders from the flood relief bill. Regardless, it's a sign of things to come, says Bill Chandler of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "We'll see more riders," he says, "particularly with the Alaska delegation's power to add them to appropriations bills."

* Greg Hanscom, HCN assistant editor

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