Congress Adjourns, Leaving Unfinished Business

Your Wilderness - January 2013

Throughout the last weeks of the 112th Congress, the public watched lawmakers and the president struggle to avoid the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1. As that drama unfolded, remarkably few items of importance were resolved, leaving a host of unfinished legislative necessities, including a five-year renewal of the Farm Bill, emergency spending to aid communities affected by Superstorm Sandy, and for that matter, any appropriations measures for fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1. Instead, a continuation of FY 2012 funding was extended until March 1, requiring the new Congress to start over. That general failure included a host of other key measures, including every wilderness bill and virtually every piece of legislation affecting the nation's public lands.

It wasn't for lack of trying by wilderness advocates, however. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the outgoing Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, worked until the end of the Congress to assemble a bipartisan lands package that could advance if not as a stand-alone measure, then as an amendment to a larger “must pass” bill, such as appropriations, tax extenders, or even a fiscal cliff bill. But those vehicles never progressed in such a way as to make amendments possible. In the week before Congress adjourned, a small number of the least controversial bills from each party were “hotlined” in the Senate, meaning that individual members are notified that the measure will be passed unless a senator objects. And two bills of interest, H.R. 3641, the Pinnacles National Park Act, and S. 140, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act, were passed by unanimous consent on Dec. 30. Because Pinnacles had already cleared the House, and the Senate did not amend it further, it was sent to the president for his signature. The bill redesignates the 26,000-acre Pinnacles National Monument as a national park and renames the existing wilderness area in honor of Schuler Hain, who led the effort to establish Pinnacles National Monument in 1908. Unfortunately, the House Natural Resources Committee, when it marked up the bill, removed a provision expanding the wilderness area from the bill, so no new wilderness was designated. S. 140, the Sleeping Bear Dunes legislation, was received in the House on Dec. 31. But the 112th Congress adjourned on Jan. 3 without acting further on the Senate-passed bill.

Even as the 112th Congress became the first since 1966 to fail to enact any wilderness legislation, momentum for protection continued, setting the stage for a renewed effort this year. On Dec. 20, Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller introduced S. 3701, the Lyon County Economic Development and Conservation Act of 2012. It includes the proposed Wovoka Wilderness of about 48,000 acres and an additional mineral withdrawal zone of 20,000 acres. Other provisions of the bill include a land conveyance for the city of Yerington to work with Nevada Copper Corp. to expand its mining operation. Legislation providing for the mineral development had previously passed the House.

Protection efforts fared better in the executive branch. On Dec. 15, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to Taos, N.M., for a listening session on proposals to protect the 235,000-acre area known as Rio Grande del Norte. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Luján had introduced legislation (H.R. 1241/S. 667) to protect the region as a national conservation area. But as Congress stalled on moving the popular measure, protection advocates appealed to the president to consider designation of a national monument using the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Previously, Secretary Salazar had pledged that no such designation would take place without public notice and involvement. Rio Grande has had the benefit of congressional hearings, but the listening session reaffirmed the area's popularity. The two-hour meeting at the Kachina Lodge drew approximately 150 people, and all who offered comments were in favor of added protection. “I think there is huge support for a designation that will protect this place,” Secretary Salazar said.

Finally, on Dec. 19, the secretary and the Bureau of Land Management announced the approval of the Integrated Activity Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final IAP/EIS) for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), laying out the management plan for the 23-million-acre area, the largest contiguous expanse of unspoiled public land in the nation. The plan, which limits oil development to approximately half of the area, provides a higher level of protection for the region than any previous decision.

“The Interior Department and BLM have exhibited effective leadership by responsibly balancing conservation of important ecological and subsistence areas on Alaska's North Slope with energy development,” said Ken Rait, who directs Pew's efforts to identify priority conservation areas on BLM lands. “The final NPR-A plan protects globally important wildlife, waterfowl, and fish habitats while providing certainty for industry by allowing for extraction of almost three-quarters of the region's developable oil and gas.”

Pew will work with congressional champions in the coming weeks and months to have wilderness legislation reintroduced.

View Photos of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska: