Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Omnibus Land Bill put on Hold

Omnibus Land Bill Put on Hold


Faced with increasing opposition, Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) November 17 postponed Senate action on an omnibus lands bill until next year.

But Reid warned critics of the 150-bill measure that the bill (HR 5151) will be a top priority when the new Congress meets in January with a large Democratic majority.

“One of the first things we’ll do (in January) is there will be a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced that will include all the stuff that was held up these past two years, so-called lands bills,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “That would be first or second thing we do when we come back in January.”

The bill was tripped up by increasing hostility from a wide range of interests, beginning with western House Republicans and extending to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, private property rights advocates, and conservative think tanks.

Reid said he quit on HR 5151 because critic Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would insist on a reading of the bill that could take more than 24 hours. The Senate’s time is limited because it was working on a short week and still had to address an economic stimulus bill. “But I think the discretion is the better part of valor and we will alert everyone that we will do this when we get back,” said Reid.

The Heritage Foundation led the intellectual campaign against the bill with a widely distributed position paper. “The lands bill removes public land that would be available for recreational, commercial, and private ownership use by designating such land as wilderness areas, heritage areas, conservation areas and wild and scenic rivers,” said author Nicolas Loris. “Furthermore, the bill places restrictions on existing federal property.”

Loris said the cost should also be considered. “The Congressional Budget Office places an $8 billion price tag on the omnibus lands bill: $7.1 billion in discretionary spending and over $915 million in mandatory spending,” he said.

The critics most object to a provision in HR 5151 (S 1139 as a stand-alone bill) that would give Congressional certification to the 26 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.) The House approved its version of the NLCS bill (HR 2016) on April 9.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and conservationists are swimming against that tide by asking the Senate to expand the NLCS by adding 6 million acres from the California Desert Conservation Area to it. The NLCS already includes 4 million acres of CDCA land, but Feinstein wants to add the whole CDCA on the Senate floor, bringing the system to 32 million acres.

Karen Schambach, California coordinator for the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, sees mischief in the exclusion of the CDCA acreage from the NLCS. “The unspoken plan is for corporate conversion of large parts of the CDCA into giant energy farms and transmission corridor superhighways,” she said.

The Senate Energy Committee developed the omnibus lands package based on committee-passed bills. However, not all committee bills made the cut because both Democratic and Republican committee leaders enjoy a veto.

The idea was to produce a bill that would provide something for everyone on both sides of the aisle. However, one key senator, Coburn, objected to the cost and possible land use restrictions. When we asked a Republican Senate Energy Committee staff member if he knew of any other Senate Republicans who publicly opposed the measure besides Coburn, he said, “No.”

Indeed, there is considerable support for HR 5151. Twenty-four Democratic House members wrote Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) October 30 and asked her to schedule a vote on HR 5151, if the Senate acted on it.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, western House Republicans and their allies won the day, for now. Their main objection is to the NLCS provision. Back on August 4 27 House Republicans had asked President Bush to veto HR 2016 if it came to him by itself. However, they did not mention a recommended veto of an omnibus bill.

In addition to the NLCS measure, HR 5151, as amended by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) from committee passed bills, would:

* WYOMING RANGE: The omnibus includes a bill (S 2229) from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would authorize non-federal interests to buy out oil and gas leases on 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have offered different estimates of the amount of oil and gas the range contains. BLM said on Feb. 27, 2008, that the area may contain 331 million barrels of oil. But on June 19 the USGS estimated only 5 million barrels of oil. Similarly, BLM estimated the area may contain 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and USGS estimated 1.5 trillion cubic feet.

* OWYHEE LANDS (IDAHO): The omnibus includes this bill (S 2833) from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) that would designate 517,000 acres of BLM-managed wilderness. An alliance of retired BLM employees, the Public Lands Foundation, objected recently to the bill and said that before designating wilderness sponsors should work with BLM to identify precise boundaries. The retirees also objected to a grazing permit buy-out provision. The administration supports.

* WILDERNESS (NINE OTHER BILLS): The omnibus includes several individual wilderness bills that would protect up to 2 million acres, including: Wild Monongahela Wilderness (West Va.), Virginia Ridge and Valley Wilderness (Va.), Mt. Hood Wilderness (Ore.), Copper Salmon Wilderness (Ore.), Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (Ore.), Owyhee (Idaho), Sabinoso Wilderness (N.M.), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Wilderness (Mich.), Oregon Badlands Wilderness (Ore.), Spring Basin Wilderness (Ore.), Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wilderness (Calif.), Riverside County Wilderness (Calif.), Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness (Calif.), and Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness (Colo.)

In addition, the amendment includes individual bills that would designate two new National Park System units, authorize additions to nine existing National Park System units; authorize by our count a dozen land exchanges and conveyances; designate four national trails; authorize studies of additions to four National Historic Trails (all in the West: Oregon National Historic Trail, Pony Express National Historic Trail, California National Historic Trail, and The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail); add three wild and scenic rivers including the Snake River Headwaters in Wyoming; and designate a Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area of about 3.5 miles of cave passages in Lincoln County, N.M.


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