Wilderness bills languish in legislative limbo

  • Beauty Mountain Wilderness, an area in California's Northern San Diego County, would grow by more than 13,000 acres, under the proposed Beauty Mountian and Agua Tibia Wilderness Act, introduced by Republican Darryl Issa.

    Douglas Steakley; courtesy Friends of the River

Like a sausage maker inured to the sights and smells of his job, anyone who dabbles in lawmaking expects un-pleasantries: Negotiations will seem endless, and compromise will be painful. But lately in the nation's Capitol, legislators have had to grapple with a new stink: Even the most hard-fought deals are indefinitely lodged in legislative limbo.

Wilderness bills that would have once passed with relative ease are among the victims of this gridlock. Congressmen deeply suspicious of the federal government and generally hostile toward new wilderness now control key committees and exercise enough power that even conservative Republicans can't get their own wilderness bills through the GOP-controlled House. In the Democrat-led Senate, bills that do hurdle past committee are often blocked with the threat of filibuster. Congress hasn't passed a single wilderness bill in nearly three years. Among the 22 bills currently languishing are a proposal by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to protect 21,000 acres in San Diego County, and a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to expand a Washington wilderness area.

"I think this is emblematic, to a great degree, of what a disaster Congress is," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

Since the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness has been "for the most part a local and regional issue," says Tim Mahoney, policy director of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign for America's Wilderness. If a local congressional delegation reached an agreement, "they might need to negotiate it somewhat with the administration, but (other congressmen) would generally defer to the desire of the senators of the state."

That shifted in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years, and Republicans -- most famously Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- began to threaten to block any wilderness or federal land bills by dragging out the debate, a tactic known as filibuster. Today, there is virtually no opportunity to pass individual lands bills, says Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society. Filibuster threats aside, a wilderness bill may require a week of floor debate and, with Congress so focused on the budget and economy, that seems a week they can ill afford. "The Senate committee continues to turn out bills, but they can't get taken up on the floor," Spitler says.

One way to break this cycle is to bundle bills together into an omnibus bill -- a sort of legislative casserole. A March 2009 omnibus lumped 160 federal-lands bills together -- enough to compete for floor time, attract bipartisan support and overcome opposition from folks like Coburn. While there has been some effort to craft a second omnibus lands bill in the Senate, one side or another has blocked it.

In the House, Spitler believes, "it's pure philosophical opposition that is preventing bills from moving forward." Representatives like Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, say that most of the land that should be wilderness already is. They're disinclined to introduce new restrictions to multiple-use federal lands.

Of course, opposition to any particular bill doesn't necessarily imply that a politician or Congress is against wilderness protection in principle. However, most of the high-profile proposals caught in the jam are the result of years of negotiations, and though not without controversy, enjoy wide support at home.
In Idaho, for instance, Johnson's group has closely partnered with Rep. Mike Simpson -- a Republican who, along with Issa, made the L.A. Times' editorial board's 2011 top 10 "Enemies of the Earth" list -- to create the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. It would designate 330,000 acres of new wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains; meanwhile, 132,000 acres would lose wilderness study area status. Managers would no longer have to protect the wilderness characteristics of those lands. It would also offer economic development grants to local communities, and allow ranchers to donate grazing allotments for retirement and be compensated by private funds.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a bill so well worked through," Johnson says. When it was first introduced in 2004, the bill's opponents were idealistic left-leaning conservationists who felt that compromises, such as allowing motorized use and transferring some lands out of the public domain, went too far. "We spent time addressing those concerns and now we are challenged from the right" -- opposed by Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, R, a Tea Partier who unseated Democrat Walt Minnick in 2010, and Sen. Jim Risch, R, once the bill's co-sponsor, who dropped his support in 2010 over the issue of motorized access.

"(It) is not a perfect bill," wrote Simpson in a statement posted to his website. "Some folks would have you believe that CIEDRA isn't necessary -- or that it doesn't go far enough to protect this land -- but most Idahoans know that the best response to a problem is to find a solution. After years of collaboration and compromise, I know that CIEDRA is that solution."

In Montana, the Forest Jobs and Recreation act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D, is, like Simpson's proposal, designed to satisfy traditionally competing interests. It would designate new wilderness, ensure some continued access for motorized recreation, and guarantee that a certain number of acres would be available for thinning and logging.

"I've done probably 100 meetings, visiting with sportsmen's organizations, environmental groups, timber interests, ranchers, watershed groups," says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited, one of the proposal's local movers-and-shakers. The bill was heard twice in the Senate, but hasn't progressed. Farling's frustration is palpable: "Politicians tell you, 'You people work it out, we'll take your ideas to Congress.' We've worked something out here and there are people in Congress who don't want to reward it."

It's enough to make one wonder: Why bother? But Farling insists the work is not in vain. "The Forest Service is (already) trying some of the things we're suggesting in the bill." For example, the bill emphasizes "stewardship contracts," which knit restoration work to timber contracts, and advocates consulting collaborative advisory groups when forming management plans. Similarly, Johnson believes the still-stalled Boulder-White Clouds deal has already done a lot of good. For instance, it's provided a model that's been put to use elsewhere for wilderness proposals that are light on ideological purity but heavy on stakeholder input and compromise.

Many wilderness proponents hold out hope that the anti-fed fervor will eventually subside, and the center of American politics reclaimed, so good bills can pass. But, says Johnson, the current trajectory "has been challenging to my optimism."

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