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