Washington - by Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Congress may lose its best chance to pass a suite of public lands proposals that would protect more than 2 million acres of federal lands as wilderness if it fails to move an omnibus measure in the lame-duck session, conservation groups say.
But while a key Senate lawmaker last week said he was bundling several dozen public lands bills into a draft package, Democratic leadership is mum about whether such a measure could move amid a crowded Senate schedule of higher-profile issues including a continuing resolution, tax extensions and other measures.
"It is on a list of items that are possible for consideration during the lame duck," Regan LaChapelle, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of a draft public lands proposal by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D). "We have a long list of items that are possible and not much time to do so."
Reid is speaking with fellow Democrats and Republicans, House leaders and the Obama administration to decide what is possible over the coming weeks, LaChapelle said.
The proposal by Bingaman, who is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would include most of the 60-plus public lands bills his panel has passed in the 111th Congress, and none that have failed to pass, said spokesman Bill Wicker.
ALW Steve Boutcher
A proposal to add 22,000 acres of wilderness to Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and extend the Pratt River and Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River wild and scenic rivers is likely included in a draft public lands omnibus package seeking passage in the Senate. Photo courtesy of USFS/Steve Boutcher.
Bills that have passed the committee include a proposal to designate the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico as a unit of the National Park System, a proposal to turn the Devil's Staircase in Oregon into federally protected wilderness where logging and road development would be banned, and a bill to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington and extend the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and Pratt River wild and scenic rivers.
Other bills would create new national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries.
"We really don't know what the prospects for a public lands bill are likely to be," said Wicker, adding that Bingaman would be talking with leadership and committee Republicans before making a decision on how to move forward. A final decision on a package could come anytime before the end of the session, Wicker said.
"Certainly the chairman would like to see all of those bills succeed," he said.
Wicker said the bill would likely be roughly one-third the size of a 2009 public lands omnibus that designated 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas in nine states, an amount nearly equal to all the wilderness designated under the George W. Bush administration.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who voted for an earlier version of the 2009 proposal as a Democratic senator from Colorado, lauded the 2009 measure this week for formally recognizing the National Landscape Conservation System and adding 1 million acres to it (see related story).
At a summit in Las Vegas on Monday to sign an order elevating NLCS to the level of directorate, Salazar said he had to return to Washington to discuss the omnibus proposal, according to sources who attended the summit.
"He mentioned he'd like to stay. However, he needed to get back to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings to work on an omnibus bill," said Greg Mumm, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that promotes access for off-highway vehicle users and often opposes wilderness bills.
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff did not confirm whether Salazar had met with Senate leadership to discuss the proposal, but said the secretary felt it was important for Interior to "serve as wise stewards of the places that matter most to Americans."
"Although we don't know at this point what specifically would be in such a package, the department and its agencies have testified in support of many measures that could be included," Barkoff said.
Some bills miss the cut
While many of the public lands bills that have passed the ENR Committee contain small-scale land swaps, boundary adjustments and trail revisions, others include sizable wilderness designations and important land and lease transfers that would either facilitate or prohibit mineral development.
Bingaman's "Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act," S. 1689, which was passed by the committee in the summer, would protect 270,000 acres of wilderness and 110,000 acres as a national conservation area.
Omnibus prospects are dim, however, for other large public lands bills that failed to pass the committee.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester's (D) "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," which coupled about 680,000 acres of wilderness with a pioneering mandate to mechanically treat 100,000 acres of timber over the next 15 years failed to pass the committee, despite the support of the Obama administration (Land Letter, Oct. 21).
Aaron Murphy, a spokesman for Tester, said the senator would be exploring all legislative options for passing the bill during the lame-duck session.
Also stalled in the committee is Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's (R) "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act," which was blocked from a committee vote by one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) (Land Letter, Sept. 30).
"CIEDRA is still a top priority for Congressman Simpson," said spokeswoman Nikki Watts. "But right now they've got a whole lot of budgetary issues they're facing."
By sticking only to measures that have passed the Senate committee, some House proposals would also miss the cut, such as Rep. Jared Polis' (D-Colo.) "Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act" in central Colorado, which includes portions of a 342,000-acre "Hidden Gems" wilderness proposal (Land Letter, Nov. 11).
"We have a chairman and ranking member who are very respectful of committee process," said Wicker, referring to Bingaman and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Accepting bills into the package that have not passed the committee is "not a 'Pandora's Box' we care to open," he said.
A bipartisan issue?
Some wilderness advocates have stressed the need to pass public lands protections before House committees fall into the hands of Republicans, some of whom have openly criticized such bills.
"Elections matter for our public lands," said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance executive director Scott Groene in an e-mail alert the day after the mid-term elections, according to National Parks Traveler. "Last night brought enormous change for the worse. Wilderness may be a bipartisan issue, although it fares better under one party and that party was crushed."
Indeed, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the likely successor to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, has said he dislikes omnibus measures, preferring instead to consider individual bills on their own merits.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is likely to lead the panel's National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, told Land Letter that omnibus measures have succeeded in masking bad bills among good ones and sneaking by substantive policy changes.
"Having an omnibus at all means the process failed," said Bishop, who criticized the 2009 measure for formally recognizing the NLCS, which includes 16 national monuments, 21 national conservation areas, 221 wilderness areas, 545 wilderness study areas, 2,419 miles of wild and scenic rivers and 6,000 miles of national scenic and historic trails.
The system, Bishop said, "still is a redundancy."
But Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society, said public lands bills have successfully garnered bipartisan support regardless of which party controls Congress.
The Senate ENR Committee and others have approved 120 bills this session that affect land, water and wildlife in 30 states, he said. Many of them are bipartisan and 28 are authored by Republicans, he said. And, Spitler noted, the last time Republicans controlled the House, Congress approved 1.8 million acres of new wilderness.
"Wilderness has historically been a very bipartisan issue, it remains a bipartisan issue today," he said, adding that the 2009 omnibus package passed the Senate with 20 Republican votes.