Analysis

In Congress: Both Congress and Administration Made Significant Moves for Public Lands in January

On Jan. 16, Senator Patty Murray and Representative Derek Kilmer (both D-WA) introduced the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2014 (S. 1949/H.R. 3917). The bill would protect 126,000 acres of Olympic National Forest as well as 19 rivers and tributaries.  Former representative Norm Dicks and Sen. Murray had introduced a version of this bill in the previous Congress. Rep. Kilmer was elected in 2012, replacing Rep. Dicks, who retired. 

Then on Jan. 28, the House Natural Resources Committee took its first formal action since 2010 to protect wilderness. 

Three measures were considered: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act (H.R. 163), introduced by Representative Dan Benishek (R-MI), the Pine Forest Range Recreation Enhancement Act (H.R. 433,) introduced by Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV), and the Lyon County Economic Development and Conservation Act, which includes the Wovoka Wilderness proposal, introduced by Representative Steven Horsford (D-NV).

The measures were approved for House floor action in a full committee business meeting.  H.R. 163 was modified by a minor amendment and reported by the committee with a voice vote, without opposition.  The Nevada bills, however, were combined into a new package along with several other small land conveyance bills. 

Additionally, the committee voted to accept amendment language making damaging changes to established wilderness management rules and management of lands immediately surrounding the wilderness. 

These changes would restrict the Bureau of Land Management from closing roads in the area and would prohibit the agency from ever again considering wilderness protection lands adjacent to Pine Forest or making such a recommendation to Congress. Because of the controversial anti-wilderness language, The Pew Charitable Trusts opposed the bill, and 14 members of the committee voted against moving it forward. 

Nevertheless, the committee reported the bill to the full House, where it is expected to be taken up under a new bill number this month.

Also on Jan. 28, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced the National Forest Jobs and Management Act of 2014 (S. 1966) as a companion bill to the House-passed Doc Hastings bill, H.R. 1526. The Barrasso bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service to create “Forest Management Emphasis” areas in western forests and to “treat,” or log, 7.5 million acres of forest over the next 15 years. 

To expedite timber sales, the legislation would streamline or eliminate National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act procedures for forestry operations.  Conservation groups oppose this bill, which received a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 6, alongside the Oregon and California (O&C) Land Grant Act (S. 1784), introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).

The Obama administration also began to make moves that may lead to protections through executive action.

On Jan. 24, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Las Cruces to hear firsthand why the community wants to protect Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as a national monument. “Listening sessions” have proved to be pivotal steps for the president in considering the designation of a national monument. 

More than 600 people attended the forum, and the vast majority spoke in favor of a national monument. Using a lottery system, Secretary Jewell heard from a diverse and randomly chosen group of veterans, Hispanic leaders, Native Americans, sportsmen, small-business owners, faith leaders, and conservationists.  Less than a week later, President Obama indicated in the State of the Union address that he may take executive action under the Antiquities Act to overcome Congress's lack of action.

President Obama said, “My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities.  And while we're at it, I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.” 

The statement was welcomed not only by conservationists but also by more than 100 House Democrats, led by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who earlier had called upon the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to designate additional national monuments for deserving lands.  The House members took the action because of the failure of the Congress to enact wilderness legislation since 2009.