In Congress: A Quiet Month in Washington, DC

The second session of the 112th Congress started slowly, with the House of Representatives returning from its holiday recess Jan. 17 for a short workweek, and the Senate reconvening Jan. 23. Little action on wilderness, or any other issue for that matter, was expected until this month, when Congress will get back into full swing.

With more than 20 wilderness bills already introduced in the 112th Congress, many sponsored by Republican members, conventional wisdom is that the current logjam on consideration of these measures will be broken sooner, rather than later. But it's anyone's guess exactly how Congress will proceed, especially in this election year.

Early in January, the Republican leadership released its anticipated agendas for the House committees and the issues it wants to tackle in 2012.

According to Greenwire (an online publication covering environment and energy policy), the House Natural Resources Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over wilderness proposals, has set the following as its top priorities for the year: “Job creation through increased energy development on public lands and waters … [with] early action on a trio of bills introduced late last year that would allow oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and reinstate a scrapped George W. Bush administration plan to promote oil shale development in the West. The bills…will see action ‘in the coming weeks or months,' according to a statement ... by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).”

Greenwire also reported the following agenda item for the committee: “Access: Republicans will continue attacking Obama policies they argue have unfairly locked up public lands. While no markup has been set, the committee will continue to push [H.R. 1581].” This bill would open more than 60 million acres of the country's most pristine lands to industrial development—an area the size of Wyoming. The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act is sponsored in the House by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and in the Senate (S. 1087) by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). The measure would remove protections that have been in place for decades and leave roughly 70 percent of America's most valuable landscapes and waterways vulnerable, including national forests now safeguarded through the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. It also would take away protection for some of the most wild, scenic, and ecologically significant holdings of the Bureau of Land Management known as Wilderness Study Areas.

The House Natural Resources Committee is also expected to continue to focus on land management decisions, such as the U.S. Forest Service's new planning rule, which could affect the access to these lands by motorized users of off-highway vehicles and snowmobiles.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, it appears that no hearings or markups are planned in the near future on any of the wilderness bills that have not already been considered. But that does not mean that nothing has occurred over the past month. The staff of Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and the committee's ranking member, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), have been in discussions to resolve some of their differences on key bills and determine whether a package of public lands bills could move forward in 2012.

So our work is cut out for us in the coming year. Individual wilderness campaigns will need to continue their good work in developing broad-based local support for their proposals to help move them through the legislative process. In addition, we have to continue to garner local and national opposition to the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act to prevent this ill-advised piece of legislation from being enacted.