In Congress: Small Victories

The departure of the Congress before the holidays was marked by finger pointing and partisanship as House and Senate leaders fought over the fate of a payroll tax reduction that was scheduled to expire on December 31. Gaining far less media attention was one bipartisan triumph: the Congress managed to pass appropriations bills for all federal departments and agencies, unlike December 2010 when a Senate appropriations package was filibustered and withdrawn from the floor. Since that time, federal agencies have operated under a series of “continuing resolutions,” based on extensions of appropriations considered in the previous year.

In April of 2011, as part of one of those “must-pass” continuing resolutions, the House of Representatives tacked on a series of policy riders, notably several restricting federal environmental policies and enforcement. Most egregious for wilderness supporters was a rider prohibiting the Department of the Interior from implementing an initiative to identify lands containing wilderness characteristics and designate some of them as “wild lands” during the Bureau of Land Management planning process.

Subsequent to the congressional restriction, on June 1, Interior Secretary Salazar announced that “the BLM would not designate any lands as ‘Wild Lands.'” Instead, he directed Deputy Secretary David Hayes “to work with the BLM and interested parties to develop recommendations regarding the management of BLM lands with wilderness characteristics.”

Advocates since that time have been uncertain about the direction of BLM planning and concerned that any administrative efforts to protect wilderness characteristics would be challenged by anti-wilderness interests as a violation of the wildlands rider.

However, December's “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012,” consisting of nine separate appropriation bills, resulted from a formal House-Senate conference which provided appropriators an opportunity to reconsider riders. As a result, the wildlands provision and several others were dropped or modified. Whereas the previous rider was an open-ended prohibition of wildlands policy implementation, the 2012 bill clarified that prohibition by stating that the Secretary retained his full powers to inventory and consider protection for wilderness-worthy lands under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

While the wildlands rider was tempered by the House-Senate conference, Senate appropriators were not able to persuade the House conferees to accept Senator Jon Tester's (D-MT) Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA) as part of the package. The Senate Appropriations Committee had added Sen. Tester's legislation to its version of the 2012 Interior and Environment bill; however, in conference, House leaders resisted, because of opposition from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT).

Four representatives of the timber industry who support FJRA voiced their disappointment over this turn of events in a December 21 op-ed in the Billings Gazette:

“The worst anyone can say about this bill is that it strives for a reasonable balance instead of ideological purity. Extremists don't like the bill. Critics include people who oppose all logging, every wilderness designation, or any hint of compromise.

“One thing is clear: Defending the status quo and fighting the old fight seems more and more out of touch with each passing day. That type of approach does a disservice to all those who have worked so hard to move Montana forward. We encourage Rep. Rehberg to move forward with us.”

Senator Tester will continue to look for opportunities to move his legislation in 2012.

Finally, as this first session of the 112th Congress drew to a close, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced companion legislation to Rep. Peter DeFazio's (D-OR) bill to protect approximately 60,000 acres of wilderness in the Rogue River area of southwest Oregon, and designate 143 miles of the river and its tributaries as Wild and Scenic.