US Senate approves a reworked package of public lands bills

The US Senate passed repackaged public lands legislation by 77 to 20 votes on Mar. 19, eight days after its original version fell two votes short of approval in the House.

The bill, HR 146, originally aimed to protect battlefields from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 when Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-NJ) first introduced it on Jan. 6 and the House passed it on Mar. 3. Senate Democratic leaders folded the more than 150 provisions from the rejected public lands bill into it on Mar. 18 before bringing it to the floor on that side of the Capitol.

Like the original bill, S. 22, which the Senate approved by 73 to 21 votes on Jan. 15, this one contained provisions which attracted support from Republicans as well as Democrats. The earlier measure failed in the House because leaders there tried to pass it under a rules suspension and it fell two votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

HR 146's prospects there are better because House Democrats have indicated they would bring it to the floor in a manner which would allow it to pass with a simple majority. They also appear likely to permit amendments this time since several Democrats voting for S. 22 on Mar. 11 expressed reservations and suggested changes. The bill received 282 yes votes and 144 no votes.

Congressional Democrats structured both bills in a manner calculated to attract broad support by including smaller measures which members originally introduced to address issues in their home states. But the legislation also would expand national wilderness and other protected areas with the most acreage additions in decades, which critics said would deny access to domestic oil, gas and other energy resources.

Veto is unlikely

There's also a chance that the bill won't sit well with US President Barack H. Obama, who registered strong disapproval of earmarks when he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act on Feb. 17. But it's not likely that he would veto it if it clears the House.

One Senate Democrat who supported both bills tried to frame them in economic as well as environmental terms on Mar. 19 after HR 146 passed. "This bill is good for our families, our heritage and our economy. When we preserve important places in our country, it encourages people to come visit them and spend money there," said Barbara Boxer (Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee.

As she displayed large photographs of a bighorn sheep, a bald eagle and California mountains and deserts, she said that she worked with both Republicans and Democrats from the state's congressional delegation to identify areas which should be included. "The economics of this are very clear. We need to save these places for our families to get away from crowded cities, and create jobs so everyone can come away from this a winner," Boxer maintained.

But the primary Republican opponent criticized the bill's passage. "Parochialism and short-term political expediency have once again trumped common sense in the US Senate. The public lands bill handicaps future generations with additional debt and new barriers to both renewable and traditional energy resources in our country," said Thomas A. Coburn (Okla.).

He said that the Senate approved only one of five amendments he introduced, a provision which would protect park visitors and scientists from criminal penalties for taking stones which may contain insignificant fossils from public lands. The Senate tabled another Coburn amendment which would have eliminated what he considered frivolous waste in the bill, including federal funding for a birthday party for St. Augustine, Fla.; botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida, and a study of Alexander Hamilton's boyhood estate in the Virgin Islands.

"The American people also should be disappointed that in a time of economic turmoil, the US Senate has devoted seven weeks to a bill that could have been done in two weeks. Seventy of the bills in this package, which I supported, could have passed by voice vote. Had the majority agreed to a simple and open amendment process months ago, we could have been focusing on more important issues," Coburn continued.

Home-state provisions

Senators who voted for the bill emphasized provisions affecting their home states. "It was important to vote for this bill because it contained a number of items important to Wyoming," including wolf compensation for ranchers and protections for the Wyoming Range and the Snake River's headwaters, according to John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

But he also criticized the decision by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to bundle so many bills into an omnibus legislative package. "I strongly support passing measures individually, as is done in the Wyoming State Legislature. As usual, Wyoming has it right and Washington has it wrong. Congress should consider legislation individually in order to debate the clear purpose of each bill. I have made my views on this very clear to [the] Senate leadership and will continue to do so in the future," Barrasso said.

Tom Udall (D-NM) said that HR 146, like S. 22, contains legislation he developed as a US House member to designate more than 17,000 acres in San Miguel County as wilderness. He said that the acreage, which the US Bureau of Land Management administers, contains land which is currently part of the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area.

He said he worked with BLM and local landowners to develop legislation to designate the area as wilderness to protect its rugged and dramatic landscape. It contains scenic canyons and mess which are home to mule deer, elk, mountain lions, wild turkey and other wildlife, as well as canyon vistas and impressive rock formations, according to Udall.

New Mexico's House of Representatives and the San Miguel County Commission each passed resolutions urging the state's congressional delegation to establish the new wilderness area, which would be open for grazing, hunting and other recreational uses, he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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