The last few months have seen the annual appropriations pageant in Washington, D.C., as Congress worked to pass the funding bill that keeps the government going. The "omnibus appropriations" bill has long been a favorite vehicle for lawmakers’ pet projects that didn’t get a hearing in the regular sessions or couldn’t make it through Congress on their own.
This year, the 3,000-page, $388.4 billion appropriations bill is hung like a Christmas tree, with funding earmarked for over 11,000 local projects and scores of unrelated "riders." Western lawmakers were among the most prolific, pushing through some contentious policy changes that carry significant implications for the public lands. Not all of the anti-environmental riders survived to see the president’s pen, however, indicating that at least some lawmakers are aware that the public, and the environmental movement, are watching.
Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, R, who chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, was behind some of the more notable riders. One Burns rider prevents the National Park Service from reducing the number of snowmobiles allowed into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks this winter. A second will let the Bureau of Land Management sell wild horses and burros over the age of 10, or that no one wants to adopt, to commercial processing facilities for slaughter.
Another rider from Burns’ committee allows the Forest Service to issue 900 grazing permits without the public oversight or environmental review normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act. During committee hearings on the issue, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, expressed his frustration with the agency’s backlog of reviews intended to address the impacts of livestock on millions of acres. Last year, a rider on the appropriations bill allowed ranchers’ 10-year permits to be renewed before the NEPA process was complete, but this year’s language eliminates the requirement entirely. Randy Moorman, a legislative representative for Earthjustice, says 80 percent of Western riparian areas are degraded by grazing, and now, "We’re stuck with the bad practices for another 10 years."
Another rider extends the controversial "fee demonstration program" which allows land managers to charge the public to visit public lands. The program gets 10 more years of life, despite the fact that in some places, it costs agencies more to collect the fees than they bring in (HCN, 1/19/04: A moment of truth for user fees). Rep. Ralph Regula, a Republican from Ohio with no public lands in his district, led the effort to include the rider, which was opposed by many Western citizens and lawmakers. The rider was amended to prevent fees for parking and recreation on national forests.
A few of the more contested riders were dropped from the final bill, including one from Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, R, that would have prevented citizens from mounting court challenges to salvage-logging sales on parts of the Siskiyou National Forest burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire (HCN, 12/22/03: Massive logging plan shakes Northwest). Sen. Burns stuck a rider on last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that sped up a similar salvage-logging project in Montana.
And public heath prevailed when Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, failed to sneak through a rider that would have exempted giant dairy farms and other farming factories from reporting the amount of toxic chemicals they release into the air. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, helped to kill the rider after neighbors of one Idaho dairy forced its owners to admit they had dumped 130 tons of ammonia into the air in 2003.
Also scrapped were two riders that would have weakened the Endangered Species Act. One of them — said to be a product of Burns’ collaboration with the Farm Bureau — would have allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to approve pesticides and herbicides without considering their impacts on endangered species.
The other rider, which was pushed by California developers, included two provisions related to habitat conservation plans, which protect endangered species habitat on state and private land while still allowing some development. The first would have made law the Clinton-era No Surprises rule, which prevents agencies from refining habitat conservation plans based on new science or changes in land-management practices. The second would have exempted habitat conservation plans from review by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. "They’re trying to rip the heart out of the Endangered Species Act while claiming minor toe surgery," says Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, D, and Washington Rep. Norman Dicks, D, led the charge against the rider. Environmentalists say they expect to see these issues again, as Congress winds up to rewrite the Endangered Species Act next year.
"Republicans will come back stronger in the next Congress," says Suckling. "This was a shot across the bow." President Bush signed the bill Dec. 8.
The writer is an HCN intern.