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