BlueRibbon Coalition Update:
After months of bouncing back and forth between the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 is tied up in the House and ready to be booted on to President Obama's desk for his signature. A detailed update is below.
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Some of the best reporting on public lands issues comes from James Coffin of Resources Publishing in Arlington, Virginia. This morning, Coffin published an excellent omnibus update in Public Lands News. He graciously gave me permission to re-print it in total. Learn more about Coffin and his publications at: http://www.publiclandsnews.com.
SENATE APPROVES OMNIBUS AGAIN, SETTING UP HOUSE TEST
-by James Coffin, Public Lands News
The Senate was near approval at press time of an omnibus lands bill (S 22) that is, in turn, expected to induce the House to approve the measure.
The Senate attached S 22 to a bill (S 146) to protect Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields. The House had rejected a previous version of S 22 March 11 in a 282-to-144 vote, or a couple of votes short of the margin needed to pass under the procedure the House was using to consider the bill.
The Senate made one important change to S 22 designed to garner more House support: It made clear the bill would not hinder hunting, fishing or other recreational activities on public lands.
Said Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), "I understand that some members in the House of Representatives expressed concern that the portion of the bill pertaining to Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Trails and National Heritage Areas might somehow be construed to limit access for authorized hunting, fishing, and trapping activities."
So the Senate adopted this language, "Nothing in this title shall be construed as affecting access for recreational activities otherwise allowed by law or regulation, including hunting, fishing, or trapping."
Under a Senate floor arrangement Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allowed chief bill critic Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to offer six amendments. None are expected to pass. Coburn sought to:
* Prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire land.
* Require an annual report detailing total size and cost of federal property.
* Remove provisions restricting renewable energy development on public lands.
* Bar new construction in general.
* Eliminate criminal penalties "for taking stones that may contain insignificant fossils."
* Strike out "frivolous waste" in the bill (five bills.)
Once the Senate finishes S 22, as attached to S 146, it will go back to the House where it is expected to be addressed either under expedited procedures or under regular procedures where only a simple majority would be needed.
Either way, bill opponent John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.) said he expects S 22 to pass eventually. "All this (March 11 vote) really means is that it will now be taken up under regular order, where it should have been in the first place and which requires only a majority vote," he said. "Thus there is no question this bill will pass the next time it's taken up."
Some supporters are optimistic. "The bill is likely to come up again in the House and we expect it to be enacted into law this year," said The Wilderness Society.
Bingaman, the lead sponsor of S 22, laid out this strategy on the Senate floor: "In an effort to facilitate consideration of this package of bills in the other body, it is my hope that we will be able to attach the omnibus lands package to another bill that has already passed the House of Representatives and send it back where, hopefully, it can be quickly approved."
But some Republican critics, even though they lost a key filibuster vote by a margin of 73-to-21, hammered at the bill for withdrawing key energy resources from development. Coburn focused on a statement from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that S 22 was a "noncontroversial" bill.
Said Coburn, "We are going to have on the floor what the majority leader calls a 'noncontroversial' bill; a noncontroversial bill, in that we are going to take 3 million acres and deem it untouchable for further energy for this country; noncontroversial in that we are going to spend - in mandatory spending yearly from now on out - $900 million a year on things you will never see the benefit of; noncontroversial in terms of taking specific areas with known, proven oil and gas reserves - to the tune of 300 million barrels of oil and 13 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Yet it is noncontroversial."
But Coburn's fellow Republican, ranking minority Senate Energy Committee member Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), took issue with him on the impact of the bill on energy development. First, she said, "In fact, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service have certified in testimony, in response to questions, that none of the wilderness proposed in this legislation will negatively impact on the availability of oil, gas, or national energy corridors."
Then she addressed a key provision of the bill that would authorize non-federal interests to buy out oil and gas leases on 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. She said the provision "is fully supported by their State delegation and their Governor."
Despite the new Senate strategy, some senators and House members who had sponsored some of the 161 individual bills in the omnibus measure were looking to move their bills by themselves. For instance, Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and James E. Risch (R-Idaho) intend to move an Owyhee lands bill that would designate 517,000 acres of BLM-managed wilderness.
"Despite falling just two votes short in the House, we will continue to press ahead with efforts to pass the Owyhee Initiative legislation," Crapo said. "The process of collaboration is succeeding in solving long-standing issues in Idaho and that process is too important to be cut short by one vote in the U.S. Congress."
The House took up S 22 the first time March 11 under a Suspension of the Rules procedure that required a three-fifths majority to pass. The Senate had first passed the bill January 15. Senate leaders told the House it had to pass S 22 without modification, further limiting flexibility in the House.
House critics of S 22, particularly western Republicans, objected most vociferously to a provision that would certify a 27 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) managed by BLM.
But Rep. Rep. Ral M Grijalva (Ariz.), chairman of the House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, defended the provision. "I am particularly proud of the inclusion of my legislation, the National Landscape Conservation System within the Bureau of Land Management," he said.
In approving S 22 the first time the Senate clarified that all conservation areas within the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) would be considered part of the NLCS. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had said last year she would offer an amendment to ensure the entire 10 million-acre CDCA was in the system.
The bill language says that the NLCS includes "Any area designated by Congress to be administered for conservation purposes, including. . . public land within the California Desert Conservation Area administered by BLM for conservation purposes."
According to BLM the NLCS contains 27 million acres, including 4.8 million acres of national monuments, 14 million areas of conservation areas, 1.4 million acres of "similar designations," 7.7 million acres of wilderness areas, 13.8 million acres of wilderness study areas, and one million acres of wild and scenic rivers.
The omnibus bill is opposed by a wide range of interests, beginning with western House Republicans and including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, private property rights advocates, powered recreation advocates, and conservative think tanks.
The Senate Energy Committee developed the omnibus lands package based on committee-passed bills. Not all committee-passed bills made the cut because both Democratic and Republican committee leaders enjoyed a veto. The idea was to produce a bill that provides something for everyone on both sides of the aisle. Bingaman said Republicans and Democrats sponsored almost equal numbers of bills in the package.
In addition to the NLCS measure, S 22 contains these initiatives:
* WYOMING RANGE: the bill from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) would authorize non-federal interests to buy out oil and gas leases on 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
* OWYHEE LANDS (IDAHO): the bill from Sen. Crapo would designate 517,000 acres of BLM-managed wilderness. An alliance of retired BLM employees, the Public Lands Foundation, objects to the bill and says that before designating wilderness sponsors should work with BLM to identify precise boundaries.
* WILDERNESS (NINE OTHER BILLS): several individual wilderness bills would protect up to 2 million acres, including: Wild Monongahela Wilderness (West Va.), Virginia Ridge and Valley Wilderness (Va.), Mt. Hood Wilderness (Ore.), Copper Salmon Wilderness (Ore.), Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (Ore.), Owyhee (Idaho), Sabinoso Wilderness (N.M.), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Wilderness (Mich.), Oregon Badlands Wilderness (Ore.), Spring Basin Wilderness (Ore.), Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wilderness (Calif.), Riverside County Wilderness (Calif.), Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness (Calif.), and Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness (Colo.)
* OTHER MEASURES: individual bills that would designate three new National Park System units, authorize additions to nine existing National Park System units; authorize by our count a dozen land exchanges and conveyances; designate four national trails; authorize studies of additions to four National Historic Trails (all in the West: Oregon National Historic Trail, Pony Express National Historic Trail, California National Historic Trail, and The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail); add three wild and scenic rivers including the Snake River Headwaters in Wyoming; and designate a Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area of about 3.5 miles of cave passages in Lincoln County, N.M.