Finding a solution hasn't been a pretty sight either, but then, the legislative process never is. No one knows whether the financial package designed to address this situation will provide a permanent solution, let alone a temporary one. We all seem to be holding our collective breath just hoping that things won't get worse and uncertain about what to do if our fears become reality. Call it the trial and error method. But one thing is certain, the ramifications stemming from the federal "cure" will be felt for generations to come.
The new Administration will be hamstrung by the financial pressures stemming from the bailout plan. Issues like health care, infrastructure funding and global warming, despite all of the campaign promises, are likely to take a back seat until the government gets a clearer picture of the real cost of the financial meltdown and the length of any recession that might result. In other words, we are in uncharted waters and the sailing is going to be choppy for the foreseeable future.
We have begun to examine how this new paradigm will affect policy making especially as it relates to recreation issues. We will do our best to address these issues directly once we have a better sense of how things are going to shake out.
Continuing Resolution Funds Wildfire Costs
The Congress adopted a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government through March, 2009. As a part of that massive spending bill, the Congress included supplemental funding for FY08 to cover wildfire costs to the tune of $775 million for the Forest Service and $135 million for the Bureau of Land Management. In the CR, Congress directed the Forest Service to transfer back $300 million to accounts that lost funds to fire fighting purposes due to reprogramming. A host of recreation programs were hit hard by such reprogramming. This meant that some recreation areas had to be temporarily closed due to the lack of operating funds. With the supplemental funding from the Congress, we expect those areas to be reopened.
Wildfire costs now comprise more than 50% of the entire Forest Service budget. A better way has to be found to fund the agency during emergency situations. That is why ARRA has supported passage of the FLAME Act as adopted by the House of Representatives. Thus far, the Senate has failed to take action on this legislation, but perhaps this can be an agenda item for the upcoming Lame Duck Session. ARRA will continue to work on this important legislation. Failure on the part of the Congress to pass this legislation would mean that next year when the fire season rolls around, the Forest Service would once again begin reprogramming funds to pay for wildfire expenses, all to the detriment of the other important missions of the agency, such as recreation.
Yellowstone and Snowmobiles
That great philosopher, Yogi Berra, summed it up best when he said, "it's like deja-vu all over again." Well, the snowmobile issue as it relates to Yellowstone National Park is back in the news and it isn't pretty. A federal judge in Washington struck down a National Park Service plan that would have allowed up to 540 snowmobiles per day in the park during the winter season. The judge's decision restores a 2004 temporary plan that prohibits snowmobile access after 2007. The reason given for the ban is that snowmobiles disrupt the wildlife, among other things.
With the ruling coming so close to the winter season, Yellowstone Park officials and the surrounding gateway communities are in a serious bind. The National Park Service has just announced that it intends to issue a new proposed rule for snowmobile use in Yellowstone by early November. The policy will be available for public comment and the Park Service hopes that it can have the policy in place by the time the snow season begins in mid-December. It seems like a rather ambitious schedule, but the local economies of those gateway communities are directly tied to allowing snowmobile access to the park.
I suspect this chapter of the story is far from over. No doubt someone will challenge the yet to be determined new Park Service plan for snowmobile access to Yellowstone and we certainly hope someone appeals the latest decision by the Washington based federal judge. We will keep you posted on future developments. In the meantime, I am sure those gateway communities who desperately need the winter snowmobilers to keep the local economies alive are probably rethinking their business plans for the 2008/2009 winter season. Perhaps they will join Wall Street and seek a federal bailout, because they will certainly need one if this latest judicial ruling is allowed to stand.
Lame Duck Session
After the November election, the Congress is scheduled to come back to Washington for what is called a Lame Duck Session. A Lame Duck references those members of Congress defeated at the polls, limping back to Washington, humiliated and bruised from a tough campaign, to attend to the people's business one last time. Lame Duck sessions are used to depose of those sticky political issues too hot to touch before an election as well as a host of other issues awaiting final action. My experience has been that most Lame Duck sessions are generally less productive than regular sessions, but maybe this next session will be an exception to the norm.
One of the leftover items awaiting Senate attention is the massive public lands bill that has been cobbled together by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman hasn't had much success this year in getting various wilderness bills as well as other public lands legislation through the Senate due to the dogged opposition of Senator Tom Coburn, R. Oklahoma.
The massive omnibus package of bills, H.R. 5151, almost 150 measures in total, includes wilderness designations, national parks expansion initiatives, historical designations and water bills. They were all placed into one bill in hopes that the rest of the Senate would roll over Senator Coburn's opposition. Included in this package of bills is legislation which would give the 26 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) permanent legislative status. We have opposed the NLCS designation and are hoping Senator Coburn will prevail in opposing the passage of this legislation during the Lame Duck Session. Senator Coburn (his Senate nickname is "Dr. No") has earned a reputation for opposing legislation that goes beyond the scope of reasonableness. We are very pleased that he said "no" to NLCS. If you like to join Dr. No in this fight, why not tell your Senators to vote "No" on NLCS: http://www.arra-access.com/campaign/nlcs_s3213
Heading Into the November Elections
Members of Congress up for re-election are nervous. The latest Gallup poll has the American people giving Congress an approval rating of 18%. That's even lower than the President's approval rating of 27%. The uncertain state of the economy is an indication that the electorate is likely to be restless and this is reflective of their attitude towards their elected leaders.
Both presidential candidates preach change. Now it will be up to the people to decide which definition of change they will endorse. Whatever the outcome, ARRA stands ready to continue to advocate on your behalf the need for greater access to public lands. The challenge won't be any easier and in some cases made more difficult because of declining financial resources available to the federal land agencies.
Be sure to vote on November 4th. Watch the election returns and be prepared for a challenging 2009.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access