The Not So Good Public Lands Omnibus Bill

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The Not So Good Public Lands Omnibus Bill

by George Nickas

 

As they say, the devil is in the details, and when the likes of anti-public lands legislators Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) stamp their approval on a massive 698-page public lands omnibus bill, we’d best dig deep.  So, why isn’t that happening?  A bipartisan chorus has applauded the “Natural Resources Management Act,” a bill written in the last Congress—the most anti-public lands Congress in memory—and about to be rubber-stamped by the new one. It is being hailed as one of the biggest conservation achievements in decades, but it is full of harmful provisions that would never see the light of day were they not tucked quietly into the omnibus. 

Take the relatively innocuous sounding “wildlife management in national parks” provision.  It should be called “Opening National Parks to Hunting,” because that’s what it does.  It allows the Secretary of Interior, heretofore Ryan Zinke, to open the Parks to “volunteer” hunters whenever the Secretary deems a wildlife population needs culling.  Zinke has already made such a declaration for predators in national preserves in Alaska, where state officials are pushing to eliminate wolves, grizzly bears, and anything else that eats hunters’ “game”.  There’s little reason to believe Zinke and his ilk won’t do the same elsewhere.  In the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park there’s a constant cry from State officials to cull the bison and elk herds, and to limit the number of wolves and grizzly bears that dare wander beyond the Park borders.  Zinke’s trophy hunting buddies in groups like Safari Club International and the NRA have always chafed at the ban on hunting in National Parks, and the public lands bill is their key to finally opening the lock.  And it’s not limited to just Yellowstone.  Bison in the Grand Canyon, elk in Rocky Mountain and wildlife in other parks could become targets with passage of the bill.

And then there’s the Alaska Native Vietnam Era Veterans Land Allotment provision that makes hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands, including in national wildlife refuges, available to privatization, development and resale in Alaska. It’s the biggest public lands privatization scheme in 50 years.  For background, in 1971, Congress passed a law that established a sunset date for a 1906 land allotment program available to Alaska Natives.  It gave a “final” opportunity for those who hadn’t made a claim in the preceding 65 years.  However, some Alaska Natives stationed in Vietnam couldn’t meet the deadline.  To address this, Congress created a new 18-month window in 1998, which was later extended to 2000.  Congress made it clear at the time that the latest deadline was final.  That didn’t stop the Alaska delegation from coming back in 2002 for another extension, which Congress and the Bush Administration roundly rejected as a land-grab.  Yet here they are again.  So much for “keeping public lands in public hands.”

There’s more. The so-called “sportsmen’s” provision elevates hunting, angling, and recreational shooting as a priority in public lands management.  A major gas pipeline will run through Denali National Park. Other provisions bring many new problems for our National Wilderness Preservation System. What did you expect, given the previous Congress wrote the bill.

To be sure, the bill contains positive provisions, but it should have undergone the scrutiny of committee hearings, public hearings, and proper oversight.  The U.S. House of Representatives should do just those things before the bill becomes law, or if the ship is too big to steer at this point, perhaps we should hail an iceberg. 

They say it’s a done deal, and it probably is.  But if you want to contact your Member of Congress and express your concerns, you can reach their offices at 202-224-3121.


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George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

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Outlook for Wilderness in Congress

george nickas 200x150kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by George Nickas and Kevin Proescholdt

 

Now that the 116th Congress has convened, the good news is no longer will the likes of Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) set the agenda and tone for wilderness and public lands legislation in the People’s House. Largely gone from public debate will be the tidal wave of terrible legislation that threatened to undo a half-century of Wilderness protection. And there should be no more pseudo “oversight” hearings that served no purpose but to attack the Wilderness Act.

 

The more sobering news is that not much changed in the Senate, and we can expect the Trump Administration to continue to push the limits of administrative power to exploit our public domain.

 

Here's our brief take on the House and Senate:

2019 Congress: House. The Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives as a result of the 2018 mid-term election, and now have a 235-200 majority. While not all Democrats are good for Wilderness (and not all Republicans are bad), this change in control is generally great news for Wilderness.

 

            Leadership: Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) now chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, replacing anti-wilderness Republican Rob Bishop (R-UT). Rep. Grijalva has been a strong supporter of Wilderness, and virtually all wilderness-related bills go through this committee. The incoming chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies is Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who has been a champion for National Parks and Wilderness, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in her home state of Minnesota. She replaces Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) as chair of this influential panel.

 

            Outlook: Even with a more favorable House, passing good legislation will remain a challenge as any bill must get through the Senate and be signed by the President. The best news is that bad wilderness bills that have been pushed relentlessly by House Republicans in the past several Congresses, such as the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE Act) (which would have gutted the 1964 Wilderness Act), and the Wheels in Wilderness Bill (which would have opened every Wilderness in the nation to mountain bikes and other mechanized forms of transportation), are now unlikely get a hearing in the House, let alone pass.

 

In the House we might be able to look forward to more oversight of the federal land management agencies and their wilderness programs. Oversight hearings, or even letters from committees to the land management agencies can shine a light on agency abuses and ultimately bring about positive change, as we saw in the early 1990s, the last time Congress took a serious look at the agencies’ wilderness programs. Hearings can also lay the groundwork for legislation to strengthen existing Wilderness laws and ensure those laws are enforced, should oversight alone fail to right the ship.

 

The House can also use the power of the purse to set policy and undo some of the most destructive actions of the current Administration and last Congress. Foremost on its agenda should be preventing the spending of any federal dollars to pursue mineral exploration or leasing on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Alaska delegation used a must-pass tax bill to open the Arctic Refuge to leasing and drilling, the House could potentially use the same to stop it. Similarly, the House might be able to use the budget process to prevent the Dept. of Interior from spending money to effectuate a land exchange with the State of Alaska that will lead to a road through the heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness. This would buy time for our lawsuit challenging Zinke’s unlawful end-run around the Wilderness Act and the 1980 Alaska Lands Act to work through the courts.

 

2019 Congress: Senate. Republicans retained control of the Senate and picked up two additional seats as a result of the mid-term election, and now have a majority of 53-47. This means that the Senate will probably treat Wilderness much the same as in the past couple of years of Republican control. Because the Senate operates differently from the House, and the majority needs some minority votes to reach the 60-vote filibuster-ending level, Democrats can still exercise some control (albeit limited) over the really bad wilderness bills promoted by Republicans.

 

            Leadership: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will continue to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the committee through which nearly all wilderness-related bills must pass. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is slated to become the Ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Manchin has a thin record on Wilderness, which leaves open the potential to create an advocate. The chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will also continue to be Sen. Murkowski, leaving this anti-wilderness legislator in two key positions of power over Wilderness. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a good supporter of Wilderness, will continue as the ranking minority member of this appropriations subcommittee.

 

            Outlook: Even though Republicans will retain control of the Senate, the dynamic between the House and Senate will dramatically change as a result of the new Democratic control of the House. In the past, the Republican House kept passing and sending over to the Senate one bad wilderness bill after another. That pattern will change now. While gridlock is probably the best bet, there may be opportunities to pass some modest wilderness designation bills or reforms to agency programs.

 

2019 Omnibus.  In December 2018, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee put together a massive public lands omnibus bill that ran to nearly 700 pages. While many of the bills in that package were noncontroversial, the omnibus did contain some bad bills as well. Fortunately, the omnibus was not included in the Continuing Resolution at the last minute in the Senate, but Sen. Murkowski has revived it in the new Congress.

 

Wilderness Watch will carefully monitor the discussions, and will work to protect Wilderness in any possible omnibus package.


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George Nickas is the executive director and Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director of Wilderness Watch.

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Wilderness Intended as Refuge from Bikes and other Mechanization

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

Several recent opinion pieces from around the country[i] have asked why mountain bikes cannot be allowed to ride in Congressionally-designated Wildernesses.  A new mountain biking organization has even had a new bill introduced in Congress (S. 3205)[ii] to open all Wildernesses in the country to mountain bikes and chainsaws.  But the short answer to their question is that allowing bicycles in these areas would defeat the very purpose of setting aside and protecting these areas as Wilderness.

 

Congress passed the Wilderness Act to protect the wilderness character of these places, not to establish recreation areas. Wilderness preserves the great silences of lands removed from the influences of modern civilization.  Wilderness is free from human domination or manipulation, where ecological and evolutionary processes may continue unhindered by humankind.  Wilderness provides places where wildlife can thrive without being startled by zooming human machines.

 

In order to protect wilderness character, Congress and the framers of the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibited bikes (and other intrusions of modern civilization) from Wilderness while writing and passing this landmark law.  The law specifically says, “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”[iii] (Emphasis added.) Bicycles are obviously a form of mechanical transport; the law can’t be much clearer than this.

 

This issue is not about the physical differences in trail damage by bikes versus horses, this is not so much about trail safety, nor is it about whose mode of outdoor transportation is better.  This issue is about protecting the wild character of Wilderness.

 

Under the Wilderness Act, Wilderness is a sanctuary for wild animals and wild processes to occur, and a sanctuary for humans to escape the influences of our modern industrialized civilization.  Like other sanctuaries, Wilderness must be treated with humility and restraint.  Part of that humility and restraint lies in how we approach and travel through Wilderness.  Mountain bikes and other machines are no more appropriate in Wilderness than they might be in other sanctuaries like Washington National Cathedral.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that Congress didn’t specifically mention bicycles in the Wilderness Act so therefore they must be allowed.  Such an argument is merely wishful thinking, just as would be claims by all-terrain vehicle owners or snowmobilers that the Wilderness Act didn’t specifically enumerate their choice of machine transport.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t specifically ban bikes until 1984, but that’s an intentionally misleading claim.  For starters, Congress banned bikes from Wilderness in 1964, and it doesn’t matter a whit whether the Forest Service waited to specifically mention bikes in its regulations.  If bikers did ride in Wilderness after 1964 (in that era before mountain bikes were invented), they did so illegally. Moreover, the other three federal agencies that administer Wilderness (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management) all specifically banned bicycles in designated Wilderness in their initial regulations and there was never any doubt about or challenge to the rules.

 

The 1964 Wilderness Act has served the nation well in the 50-plus years since it was enacted.  It protects these special places from activities that degrade their wilderness values, including mechanical transport and mountain bikes.  As a nation, we need to continue to use humility and restraint in how we treat our Wildernesses, and that includes not weakening the Wilderness Act.  The new bill in Congress (S. 3205) would allow mountain bikes to invade these sanctuaries.  That bill must not pass.  There are many, many areas for riding bicycles, but Wilderness is not one of those places.

 

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kevin proescholdtKevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch[iv], a national wilderness conservation organization.  He has written widely on Wilderness, including Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness[v] (1995) and Glimpses of Wilderness[vi] (2015).



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A Brief History of Quid Pro Quo Wilderness

Janine BlaelochJanine Blaeloch,
Board member, Wilderness Watch
Director, Western Lands Project


Beginning in the late 1990s, a new kind of land deal materialized in Congress that would present a huge challenge to grassroots public land activists and wilderness advocates and create a significant schism in the environmental movement. Quid pro quo wilderness, as it came to be called, was carried forth in legislation that combined wilderness designation with exchanges, sales, even outright giveaways of public land designed to “buy” Wilderness. As the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approached, controversy was roiling around this new strategy. As we approach the 50th, we need to remind ourselves of the threats posed to Wilderness and public land, and rededicate ourselves to the fundamental ideals and hopes we hold for them.


Traditionally, wilderness legislation simply designated the boundaries of newly-protected areas and might include “release” language that dropped Wilderness Study Areas from interim protection, and/or from any future consideration for Wilderness status. Quid pro quo wilderness, promoted by big-name, big-money organizations like the Wilderness Society, Campaign for America’s Wilderness, and the Sierra Club, turned this simple tradition of wilderness protection on its head.


Suddenly, staff time was spent not in gathering public support for Wilderness and campaigning for passage of concise, protective bills, but in negotiations with anti-wilderness “stakeholders”—ranchers, local politicians, developers, and motorized recreation enthusiasts. Wilderness designation came to be but one provision in sometimes voluminous legislation that also privatized public land, facilitated major water and land development projects and allowed non-conforming, wilderness-damaging uses in the newly designated wilderness lands.


Steens lowlands100,000 acres of public lowland habitat near Steens Mountain were traded to ranchers in the first big quid pro quo deal. Photo: Western Lands Project On Oregon’s Steens Mountain, environmental groups negotiated a deal that traded more than 100,000 acres of federal land to ranchers in order to get 18,000 acres that would go into a new Wilderness. In Nevada, wilderness advocates supported the privatization of tens of thousands of acres of public land in Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine counties. In Idaho, two huge quid pro quo bills proposed to give federal land away to local government—including in the beloved Sawtooth NRA--and to force land exchanges with ranchers who would be allowed to name the value of their land.

Well-staffed groups with lavish funding—much of it provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts-- engaged in complex, closed-door negotiations with members of Congress, county commissioners, and others who sought to extract a heavy price for allowing wilderness designation to advance. In the meantime, grassroots groups working to uphold the sanctity of Wilderness and the integrity of public lands had a huge task on our hands. In addition to lobbying Congress and explaining the pitfalls of quid pro quo to the public, we had to try to change the trajectory of organizations that had at times been allies.


01 slides 007 10 14 13 3Quid pro quo deals have pushed pavement and development farther out into the magnificent desert of the Las Vegas Valley. Photo: Western Lands Project In our view, quid pro quo wilderness proposals that sanctioned land disposals and developments had grave potential to undermine environmentalists’ efforts to protect and retain federal lands and to secure real Wilderness protection. In promoting these actions, wilderness negotiators were legitimizing the view of anti-public land politicians and other interests who regarded federal land as a low-value, disposable asset, and Wilderness as a prize that could be won only through damaging, far-reaching concessions.

By late 2006, as several quid pro quo bills we had managed to keep from passage stood in the end-of-session Congressional queue, Western Lands, Wilderness Watch, and Friends of the Clearwater composed an open letter to the conservation community calling for “a moratorium on damaging public land and wilderness legislation.” With the very real possibility that the House would be changing from a Republican to a Democratic majority in the coming election, and countless other reasons to abandon the quid pro quo approach, we urged proponents to back away from these bills. The letter was signed by 88 groups from across the country, and distributed to both Congressional offices and the deal-making groups.


As it happened, only one of the poisoned bills passed before Congress adjourned—a quid pro quo for White Pine County, Nevada sponsored by then-minority Senate Leader Harry Reid. Reid, an incorrigible public-land dealer had managed to attach it to a tax-relief bill.


We in the grassroots persisted in our battle against these bills and eventually gained the critical support of Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, and Nick Rahall (D-WV), his counterpart in the House. Bills laden with giveaways and development projects were either buried or substantially re-written.


In 2009, the phalanx of quid pro quo bills that had prompted the moratorium call fell into disparate pieces. One Idaho bill passed after being gutted of its worst provisions. The same fate came to a Utah bill mandating the sell-off of 25,000 acres of public land for housing development. But these were not total victories—some bad provisions for Wilderness access and use remained in these bills, and scores of public-land related measures ended up passing in a 1,300-page omnibus bill, the worst of which opened the door for the State of Alaska to build a 15-mile-long road through across the Izembek Wilderness. This horrible, precedent-setting provision was described by Pew Trust’s wilderness program leader, Mike Matz as the “art of legislating. It’s about compromise.”


Since then, the national groups have bemoaned the lack of new wilderness designations and have pushed for another public-lands omnibus. Perhaps they realized that individual quid pro quo measures left them too exposed, and—as members of Congress have so often done—seek the cover of a big bill, where the bad gets passed with the good, and no one is the wiser. One can barely imagine what they might come up with in negotiations with the current crop of legislators, including a House full of public land-averse Republicans and Harry Reid heading up the Senate.


Janine Blaeloch is founder and director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land exchanges, sales, giveaways, and any proposal that would privatize public lands. She has written three books on these issues, including “Carving Up the Commons: Congress and Our Public Lands.” Janine earned a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Washington, with a self-designed program focusing on Public Lands Management and Policy. Before starting Western Lands, she worked as an environmental planner in both the private and public sectors. She has been an activist since 1985.
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The Most Serious Attack on America's Wilderness

brandy1 12 17 12GOP-backed bill is most serious attack on America's Wilderness Act in history
The Wilderness Act has protected America's wild lands for 50 years. It is now under threat by a House bill deceptively called The Sportsmen's Heritage Act. Citizens must demand the US Senate do nothing to advance its devastating provisions.

Opinion
Christian Science Monitor
By Stewart Brandborg / November 30, 2012
Hamilton, Mont.

Conservationists and wilderness enthusiasts across America are mobilizing to defeat a bill passed by the House of Representatives in April that would eviscerate the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Deceptively entitled the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, the bill (H.R. 4089) purports to protect hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. The bill is being pushed by powerful groups like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International and supported by some of the most anti-wilderness Republicans in Congress. And it would effectively gut the Wilderness Act and protections for every wilderness in America's 110-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System – everywhere from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border that I can see from my home.

The House bill's provisions could still become law during the current lame-duck session of Congress. Though the Senate is considering a different sportsmen's bill that does not include the harmful elements, the Senate bill could eventually be merged with the devastating House bill in order to pass both chambers.

The Wilderness Act eloquently defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The statute further designates wilderness as an area that retains "its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation" and is "protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions."

I know the Wilderness Act. I worked alongside my mentor, Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society (the bill's chief author and proponent), from 1956-1964 to gain its passage by Congress. After Zahniser's untimely passing in 1964, I directed the Wilderness Society for the next 12 years in implementing the new law and in adding new areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Congress responded to requests from the American people by adding tens of millions of acres to the wilderness system. Today, that system has grown from the original 9 million acres in 1964 to nearly 110 million acres. The Wilderness Act provides the best and most protective standards of all types of federal public land protection.

But this great legacy of American Wilderness is essentially destroyed by H.R. 4089 in several key ways.

First, H.R. 4089 elevates hunting, fishing, shooting, and wildlife management above wilderness protection within designated wilderness areas. Visitors or wildlife managers could drive motor vehicles and build roads, cabins, dams, hunting blinds, aircraft landing strips, and much more in wildernesses if any of these activities could be rationalized as facilitating opportunities for hunting, fishing, shooting, or managing fish and wildlife.

The only limitation in H.R. 4089 on motor vehicles or development is that the activity must be related to hunting, fishing, shooting, or wildlife management, though that need not be its only or even primary use. In reality, almost any recreational or management activity could be shoehorned into one of these exceptions and thereby exempted from Wilderness Act safeguards.

Perhaps even more troubling, H.R. 4089 would waive protections imposed by the Wilderness Act for anything undertaken in the name of wildlife management or for providing recreational opportunities related to wildlife. This would allow endless manipulations of wildlife and habitat.

This could include logging, if done to stimulate new forest growth on which deer might graze. Similarly, bulldozing new dams and reservoirs could be validated as a way to enhance fishing habitats. Poisoning lakes and streams to kill native fish and then planting exotic fish might be allowed under the guise of increasing fishing opportunities. And predator control (including aerial gunning and poisoning) could be defended for boosting the numbers of popular hunted species like elk or bighorn sheep that predators also eat.

There is no limit to what managers could do in designated wilderness areas all in the name of wildlife management or providing opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting. These provisions strike at the heart of the Wilderness Act and its foundational underpinnings to preserve wilderness untrammeled and native wildlife in its natural environment.

Sportsmen and sportswomen – those who hunt and fish – were, and continue to be among the strongest supporters of the original wilderness law, of designating wilderness lands, and of the special quality of fishing and hunting experiences that wild and undeveloped lands provide. Many of these folks are fighting to prevent eviscerating the law and its wilderness preservation safeguards.

For nearly a half-century, the Wilderness Act has protected the finest of America's wild lands and created a National Wilderness Preservation System that is the envy of much of the world. H.R. 4089 would negate all that we have preserved. In my 60 years of work for wilderness preservation and management, our nation has never been threatened by a more serious attack on this irreplaceable publicly owned resource. Citizens must demand that the US Senate do nothing to advance the House provisions of the so-called Sportsmen's Heritage Act and instead protect our grand wilderness legacy for future generations.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/1130/GOP-backed-bill-is-most-serious-attack-on-America-s-Wilderness-Act-in-history

Wilderness icon Stewart Brandborg worked hand-in-hand with wilderness bill-author Howard Zahniser in the late-50s/early-60s to get the Wilderness Act passed and is the only person living today who worked day-to-day on the bill. After Zahniser's untimely death in 1964, Brandy took over as executive director of the Wilderness Society until 1976. He remains very active in Wilderness and public lands issues, is a long-time Wilderness Watch board member and now serves as a senior advisor. He is an incredible inspiration to all.
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