Congressional Update: Committee Continues Tug of War Over Public Lands

While most of the country just “fell back” with the end of Daylight Savings Time over the weekend, the House of Representatives has finally “sprung forward” with the recent consideration of several wilderness proposals.  This welcome development—the first hearing on wilderness designation bills in the House during the 112th Congress—took place when the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands of the House Committee on Natural Resources met on October 25 to consider six pending measures to safeguard unspoiled public land.  Four of the bills are sponsored by Republicans and two are sponsored by Democrats.

The hearing had a somewhat rocky start, as both Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and full Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), again expressed concerns about wilderness, in general.  Fortunately, Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and full Committee Ranking Member Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) spoke just as forcefully in support of protecting our nation's wild lands. 

As the Subcommittee turned to the wilderness bills on their agenda, however, Bishop noted:  “Each of these wilderness designations is found within the district of the congressman who is representing, or presenting, the bill, which is a significant issue.  Each of them deals with areas—they are obviously areas of special significance that we want to protect….”  Rep. Hastings went on to say that “…this hearing today demonstrates that Chairman Bishop and I are open to the possibility of appropriately designating new wilderness areas.”  Most viewed these remarks as promising for a fair consideration of the wilderness bills, and the hearing went relatively smoothly from that point forward.

There is no indication at this time when, or if, the Committee intends to hold a business meeting, or markup, to vote on these bills and report them to the full House for consideration, but we will continue to work with the bills' sponsors to move them through the legislative process.

The six wilderness bills included in the hearing were:

  • H.R. 41, the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Wilderness Act, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).  The legislation designates over 21,000 acres of wilderness in northern San Diego County, Calif..
  • H.R. 113, the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).  The legislation designates approximately 18,000 acres of wilderness on these national forests—the two most widely visited forests in the Nation—near Los Angeles.
  • H.R. 490, the Manzano Wilderness Addition, sponsored by Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).  The legislation expands the existing Manzano Mountain Wilderness in the Cibola National Forest outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, by some 900 acres.
  • H.R. 608, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. David Reichert (R-Wash.).  The legislation expands the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness by 22,100 acres and designates parts of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic.
  • H.R. 977, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act, sponsored by Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).  The legislation designates over 32,500 acres of wilderness in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the mainland shore of Lake Michigan.
  • H.R. 1413, the Devil's Staircase Wilderness Act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).  The legislation designates nearly 30,000 acres of wilderness on Wassen Creek in Oregon's Coast Range.

While the hearing on wilderness proposals was heartening, other actions in both the House and Senate were more concerning.  During the first weeks of October, several congressional committees approved proposals that, in the name of national security, pose grave threats to our nation's public lands, environment, and public health.

On October 5, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted, 26 – 17, to report H.R. 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Bishop.  This measure, as introduced, sought to allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have unfettered access to all federal public lands anywhere in the country and establish a 100-mile “buffer zone” along all land and maritime borders of the United States in which some 36 health and environmental laws would be waived, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the Wilderness Act—all in the name of so-called “operational control” of our Nation's borders.  During the markup of this bill, it was amended somewhat to address some of the concerns that had been expressed about its broad reach and detrimental consequences to public lands and the environment.  Unfortunately, the amended bill is only slightly less harmful than the original version.  As reported, the legislation grants U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency of the DHS, access to all lands managed by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture anywhere in the country; and, waives the 36 health and environmental laws only on Department of the Interior and Agriculture lands within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico—placing numerous wilderness areas, national parks, national monuments, and national wildlife refuges at risk of serious environmental harm.

Prior to the Committee markup, the Pew Environment Group sent a letter to Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Markey  opposing the adoption of H.R. 1505.  The letter stated that, “H.R. 1505 constitutes such a threat to the nation's public health and environmental protections that we do not envision how any amendments could mitigate its negative impacts.  We urge the Committee to reject the bill in its entirety.”

Elsewhere in the House, on October 13, the Committee on Homeland Security approved an amendment by Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) to the Department of Homeland Security Authorization bill (H.R. 3116) that is similar to, but not as far-reaching as, H.R. 1505.  This provision provides the CBP authority to access all lands managed by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture for security activities related to border control within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States.  Under this provision, public land laws, including the Wilderness Act, will be overridden by the CBP, allowing them to use motorized vehicles, build roads, and construct and maintain structures, including “forward operating bases.”

And, in late September, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) almost identical to the Quayle amendment.  The McCain provision provides that CBP shall have access to all lands managed by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border for purposes including routine motorized patrols and deployment of tactical infrastructure, surveillance, and detection equipment.  This amendment had originally sought this authority for CBP over an area 300 miles from the border.

So while we have seen some recent progress on wilderness legislation with the House hearing, wilderness has also been the subject of bills that would weaken conservation of public lands in the name of national security. The goals of protecting special public lands and safeguarding our borders should not be mutually exclusive.  The country should be able to achieve both objectives without hindering or impeding the other.