... comes after two years of arrested development

 

You might call the 104th Congress a roller-coaster ride for environmental legislation: Conservative Republicans began by attempting to weaken or dismantle many of the nation's strongest environmental laws, attaching many of their proposals as "riders" on the backs of appropriations bills.

But the Congress concluded by rejecting virtually all of the more radical measures, and President Bill Clinton unilaterally stopped a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone (HCN, 9/2/96) and a coal mine in southern Utah (HCN, 9/30/96).

Here are a few highlights:

Salvage logging rider: In what the administration later admitted was its biggest environmental mistake, President Clinton signed the salvage logging rider in the summer of 1995 as part of a major appropriations bill. The measure expedited timber sales throughout the West, including sales of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest, forbade administrative appeals and exempted the sales from most environmental laws.

Pressure from environmentalists forced the administration to cancel some of the most damaging sales, but attempts to repeal the law, which expires at the end of this year, fizzled. Hostility toward the salvage rider, however, ultimately killed a forest-health bill introduced by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, which would have made permanent the thrust of the salvage rider (HCN, 9/2/96).

Transfer of public lands: Bills advocating the transfer of federal lands to the states were introduced early in the session. One would have given states the authority to claim Bureau of Land Management holdings within their borders; another would have set up a commission to review public-land management and cut costs 30 percent. Environmentalists and sportsmen banded together to ensure that the bills never received serious consideration (HCN, 10/2/95).

National parks closure bill: This measure, introduced by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, would have directed the Interior secretary to develop a list of parks that should be booted from the national park system. It was defeated, 231-180, on the House floor in September 1995. Hansen's later attempt to attach it to a budget bill was thwarted by strong opposition (HCN, 10/16/95).

Grazing: New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, managed to pass a grazing "reform" bill through the Senate which would have rolled back Interior Department regulations. But though revised and kept alive throughout the session, it never overcame opposition from environmentalists and sportsmen who claimed it would have promoted grazing above all other uses of the public lands (HCN, 8/21/95).

Endangered Species Act: Though rewriting this law was a top priority for conservative lawmakers, no bills reached the House or Senate floors. Republicans squabbled over different versions, and party leaders ultimately decided to shelve the issue (HCN, 4/29/96).

Mining: Reform of the 1872 Mining Law never got off the ground, but there were fears that the mining industry would push to undo the only progress of the previous Congress - a moratorium on the selling of public-land mine claims to mining companies. The industry and its allies decided against a fight, however, and the moratorium was extended for another year (HCN, 10/16/95).

Utah wilderness: The entire Utah delegation, save Democratic Rep. Bill Orton, backed a 1.8 million-acre bill that would have released the majority of the state's roadless BLM lands to multiple uses. The bill quickly shot through committees in both houses but died on their floors, the victim of spirited opposition from canyon lovers around the country (HCN, 12/25/95).

Omnibus parks bill: After being saddled with numerous controversial riders, Congress ultimately dropped most of them in the waning moments of the session to pass this bill. It includes dozens of boundary changes and land exchanges, a new Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve in Kansas' Flint Hills and the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area, which will protect an ancient - and long fought over - old-growth forest in western Oregon. To the chagrin of many Utah environmentalists, the bill included a land exchange giving more than 1,000 acres of prime real estate next to the Snowbasin Ski Resort to ski mogul Earl Holding, the owner of the resort and Sinclair oil. They view it as a land grab, though proponents claim the exchange will allow Snowbasin to better accommodate visitors at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics (HCN, 10/30/95).

Environmental Protection Agency: Lawmakers targeted EPA for severe budgetary cutbacks and more than a dozen appropriations bill riders would have stripped the agency's authority and ability to enforce rules protecting the nation's air, land and water from pollution (HCN, 9/4/95). Early in the session, 51 Republicans broke ranks and voted to remove the riders. Congress ultimately restored much of the agency's funding and passed a new and fairly strong Safe Drinking Water Act.

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