In Congress: August Work Is Largely Behind the Scenes

Your Wilderness - September 2012

The 112th Congress has passed few bills of any kind and no wilderness legislation. Although members of both parties have introduced more than two dozen measures in the House and Senate to designate or expand wilderness areas, the House Natural Resources Committee leadership has chosen not to advance any of them. And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee appears to be gridlocked over its lands agenda. So when lawmakers left Washington in August,  little was going on—at least on the surface.

But Congress does some of its best work below the radar in the painstakingly difficult negotiations between members with different viewpoints and agendas. The Senate committee staff continued its efforts after much of official Washington had left town.

Lands legislation has been bottled up for a year and a half in the committee, because key members disagree over specific bills. Lands bills have been subject to filibuster threats on the floor, and any package of bills emerging from the committee must have bipartisan support so it can muster the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. There is no question that this tactical threat still looms: The Senate was unable to achieve the necessary consent to pass a House-passed lands bill in the last days before the August recess. H.R. 3641, a bill to re-designate California's Pinnacles National Monument as a national park, cleared the House of Representatives by voice vote July 31 after removal of a section expanding the wilderness area in the proposed park.  But the concession was not enough to move the bill forward in the gridlocked Senate.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee's ranking member, Lisa Murkowski (AK), does not support the effort by Chairman Jeff Bingaman (NM)  to move lands bills forward, because he has not agreed to consider S.730, her bill for Alaska's Sealaska Native Corporation. Thus any resolution of the committee logjam would require the members to first to try to resolve the Sealaska bill.

The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S.730), introduced by Murkowski with four co-sponsors and opposed by environmental groups and the Obama administration, would expand the geographical range from which the Sealaska Native Corporation could select approximately 70,000 acres of federal lands in partial resolution of aboriginal claims under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Sealaska, a native corporation organized under ANCSA, represents native shareholders in southeastern Alaska. The bill would extend the lands eligible for native claims selection to regions of the Tongass National Forest now being managed for other purposes under the Tongass Management Plan. Sealaska plans to log most of these lands. By moving to the newly available lands included in S.730, it could avoid logging sensitive lands near native villages within its current area of selection. The U.S. Forest Service has stated that if Sealaska were to obtain title to the areas specified in S.730, the agency would be unable to carry out its goal of ending federal timber operations in roadless areas and moving future logging operations to second-growth areas—lands in the road system that were previously harvested. In addition, S. 730 would allow Sealaska an unprecedented opportunity to select numerous smaller parcels along key areas of shoreline for non-timber purposes. The agency and environmental groups argue that this would create a series of private inholdings tithing the forest that complicate management and are opposed by other forest users such as hunters and fishermen.

For more than a year, committee staff members representing both senators, as well as agency and administration representatives have held meetings in an effort to bridge their differences. They are trying to find an alternative selection of lands that could meet Sealaska's goal of maintaining its corporate timber program while not jeopardizing the Forest Service's transition to second-growth forestry. As the recess approached, agreement was still elusive, but the parties had made enough progress to continue discussions.

Unfinished Business: Land Affected by Pending Bills in Congress