E&E: Thursday, April 19, 2007
PUBLIC LANDS: Senate bill would codify BLM conservation system; Red Rock wilderness revived
Dan Berman, E&E Daily senior reporter
The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday proposed legislation that would codify a Bureau of Land Management program that oversees 26 million acres of sensitive public lands and rivers across the West.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) bill would provide a legal footing for the National Landscape Conservation System, a Clinton administration creation that manages 15 national monuments, 161 wilderness areas, 38 wild and scenic rivers, and other sensitive areas such as California's Headwaters Forest Reserve.
Separately, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) revived legislation that would designate 9.4 million acres of BLM lands in Utah as wilderness.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers and groups such as the Wilderness Society and National Trust for Historic Preservation have endorsed plans to codify the NLCS, even though the bill promises no new funds for the system and would not alter BLM's current management plans.
"Because the NLCS was established administratively, it does not have the permanence that it would have if enacted legislatively," Bingaman said in a floor statement yesterday. "Legislative enactment of the NLCS will help increase the attention to these important, congressionally protected areas, and hopefully will help ensure that the system remains a high priority within the BLM and the Department of the Interior."
Part of the purpose behind separating the now-26 million acres into the NLCS was to stop the loss of open space and give the areas a different focus from the rest of BLM's 262 million acres, which are managed for multiple uses, including oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and motorized recreation, among others.
"By putting these lands into an organized system, the BLM hopes to increase public awareness of these areas' scientific, cultural, educational, ecological and other values," BLM's NLCS Web site states.
Red Rock wilderness bill reintroduced
Also on Capitol Hill yesterday, Democrats revived the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would set aside 9.4 million acres of BLM land in Utah as wilderness.
New wilderness areas in the Hinchey and Durbin bill would be established in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and other federal lands in Utah where energy or other development pressures exist, according to the sponsors.
"Energy companies are gobbling up leases in red rock country right now while they have an oil friendly administration in the White House," Hinchey said in a statement yesterday. "We're going to do everything we can to stop this free-for-all lease sale before it's too late and ensure that this beautiful land is safeguarded."
A wilderness designation would prohibit motorized activities such as off-road vehicle use, oil and gas drilling, and mining. The bill is supported by over 240 environmental groups, but the Utah congressional delegation is not on board.
"I can't imagine it going forward," said Scott Parker, chief of staff to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). "A Utah wilderness bill at the very least should come from a member of Congress in Utah and be based on legislative criteria for wilderness designations. I'm pretty sure this bill does neither of those."
Bishop, ranking member of the House Parks Subcommittee, is not opposed to new wilderness designations, Parker noted, citing the 100,000-acre Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area in northeastern Utah that Congress approved in 2005. That bill was part of an effort to prevent the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indian reservation from building a rail line to the planned 44,000-ton nuclear waste repository.
Although Hinchey has introduced the Red Rock wilderness bill several times in recent session of Congress, Pete Downing, legislative director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the Democratic Congress gives supporters hope.
"The atmosphere in Congress is that people are now very wary of the excesses of the oil and gas industry," Downing said.