Late July Saw a Flurry of Congressional Activity On Public Lands

After a slow start, the pace of legislative activity in Congress picked up in the last days of July before lawmakers departed for the August recess. The House Natural Resources Committee approved two wilderness bills protecting three areas in Nevada and Washington, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) tried a new approach to propel his Oregon and California (O&C) Lands forest and conservation legislation forward. 

On July 30, the House Natural Resources Committee held a two-hour session during which 16 measures were approved. The first of these—H.R. 5205, the Northern Nevada Land Conservation and Economic Development Act, which contains the Pine Forest and Wovoka wilderness proposals—passed by voice vote. Also passed was H.R. 361 to protect land in Washington: the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act. The panel also approved by unanimous consent S. 354, the Oregon Caves National Monument bill, which is sponsored in the House by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Peter DeFazio (OR). 

Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) offered a substitute amendment to H.R. 5205 that would combine the Pine Forest and Wovoka measures with various land conveyance bills and was similar to a version considered by the committee in January. Chairman Hastings pointed out that the original bill was never filed, at the request of the Nevada delegation, which wanted language that would appeal to local stakeholders. After discussions, the committee altered provisions that some conservation groups found objectionable. This version no longer included “hard” release language, which would prevent lands from receiving future wilderness protection. Instead, traditional release language was used that is typical of most Bureau of Land Management wilderness designations. This version allows the government to acquire land for conservation purposes and close unnecessary and harmful roads. The bill also includes the most significant change to fire policy since 1984: BLM is no longer barred from using mechanical treatments to prevent wildfire. According to Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a subcommittee ranking member, the language represented a precedent, and the committee and the Senate will need to clarify the provision so that it would have no unnecessary implications. The bill was approved by voice vote. 

H.R. 361 was considered next.  Chairman Hastings offered an amendment that trimmed a few hundred acres from the wilderness, including state land and areas around a heavily used trail that could provide management challenges. The amendment also included language regarding mechanical treatment for wildfire prevention and language restricting federal condemnation authority in the wild and scenic rivers corridor. Chairman Hastings’ staff is working with the offices of Washington’s senators to resolve several bills, including Alpine Lakes, for passage in a package this year. Rep. Grijalva did not support the inclusion of the fire language in this instance, but he did not object. The amendment was approved by voice vote.  

If these bills go to the floor in September, they represent hope for House-Senate agreement on at least two modest packages of land legislation. 

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee did not approve any wilderness bills last month, although its National Parks Subcommittee heard testimony on numerous bills on July 23, including S. 1794, a proposal by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) to designate Brown’s Canyon as a national monument with a wilderness area within. 

The committee has stalled on moving public lands legislation since Sen. Wyden departed the chair in January. At that time, Senator John Barrasso (WY) indicated that he expected action on S. 1966, his broad national forest timber management legislation, if the committee approved S. 1784, Sen. Wyden’s original O&C bill. Senators Wyden and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) pledged to try to produce bipartisan forestry legislation, and many believed Sen. Wyden would be permitted to move S. 1784 (along with other wilderness bills) before adjournment, but outstanding issues were not resolved. 

S. 1966 is opposed by The Pew Charitable Trusts and other environmental organizations because it would require that forests be logged at levels not seen since the heyday of old-growth clear-cutting during the 1980s. This level of logging, which is not based on science, economics, or the opinions of professional foresters, would undermine several environmental laws such as the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act. 

On July 31, hours before adjournment, Sen. Wyden took a surprising approach on S. 1784. He introduced another bill for the O&C lands that included new tax provisions for some private timberland owners, with the goal of equalizing tax treatment for different types of ownership. The bill also calls for a study of the economic impact of log exports. Because of the tax provisions, the bill was referred to the Finance Committee, which he chairs, giving him more direct control over its fate. 

"Sen. Wyden is as committed as he's ever been to moving [O&C] forward," Wyden spokesman Keith Chu told The Oregonian.  "He wants to do it as soon as possible.” 

In addition to the tax provisions that placed the bill in a second venue, modifications have been made to some of the environmental provisions as well.  Many of the issues that conservationists had with the bill have been clarified to ensure that no harm is done to ecological interests. In addition, some changes were made to the forest management base to protect special management areas and to modestly increase timber production. 

Pew is looking forward to the passage of these bills into law in the fall.

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