US House passes repackaged public lands bill

Two weeks after it failed by two votes to pass public lands legislation, the US House approved Mar. 25 a bill that will add 2 million acres to the federal wilderness system.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 27 -- Two weeks after it failed by two votes to pass public lands legislation, the US House approved Mar. 25 a bill that will add 2 million acres to the federal wilderness system. The measure now heads to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

Originally a bill to protect Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields, HR 146 grew to 130 pages when US Senate Democratic leaders folded more than 160 bills from S. 22 into it. The House passed it by 285 to 140 votes, which was more than the necessary two-thirds majority, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) said.

He and other supporters hailed the bill's extensive provisions, which helped it win bipartisan support. Oil and gas associations and public lands groups expressed concern that it potential could close much more acreage beyond the wilderness system additions to federal leasing.

At a press conference with House members following the bill's passage, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar confirmed that the 2 million new acres of wilderness would definitely be closed to oil and gas activity. Another 26 million acres which would be added to the National Conservation Landscape System would be limited to "appropriate activity," he said.

Citing recent lease sales by the US Minerals Management Service and the US Bureau of Land Management, Salazar said, "I think that people who say making this acreage wilderness pulls the rug out from under the oil and gas industry are flat-out wrong."

'Wrong direction'
But Independent Petroleum Association of America Pres. Barry Russell called the House's passage of the bill "a step in the wrong direction for our economy and our energy future." He said, "This legislation makes it harder to responsibly develop oil and natural gas resources on federal lands, and limits American energy production, a main driver of economic growth."

Lands identified in the bill are effectively protected already, Russell said on Mar. 25. "As our economy continues to struggle, the last thing we need is a self-imposed, unnecessary obstacle to recovery. America's independent producers use state-of-the-art technology to minimize the environmental impact of resource development on federal and non-federal lands," he said.

The 160 bills added to HR 146 included one by US Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would make the Wyoming Range wilderness, effectively cutting off 12 tcf of gas, said Claire M. Mosely, executive director of Public Lands Advocacy in Denver.

"I've tried calling BLM to find out how much land this affects, and several people weren't able to help me. They just don't know yet," she told OGJ. "It seems that Secretary Salazar should have a more balanced approach toward how lands are managed instead of supporting something that conforms to the Democratic platform. For them to put together legislation which cuts out so much land is shocking," she said.

Jim Sims, president and chief executive of the Western Business Roundtable in Denver, said his group is studying the bill, but believes that it is "the single worst bill in terms of increasing our foreign energy dependence that Congress has passed."

'Locked away'
"We know, from the magnitude of the lands which have been taken away, that a huge amount of American energy has been locked away in the cellar, permanently," Sims said. "It's ironic, at a minimum, when we have leaders of Congress speaking of great energy independence in virtually every paragraph of every speech that a bill passes which takes away our ability to move toward independence," he added.

Sims told OGJ that the process behind this bill's passage was badly flawed. "Many of the wilderness designations in this bill would have passed had they been looked at individually by Congress. Many probably have merit. But in wrapping it up in an omnibus package, they produced a bill in which very few members could analyze all the land designations. By folding it into 130 pages, they were able to slip in land designations which normally would not have passed muster if they were looked at individually," he said.

Sims suggested that some members of Congress will be surprised when they learn that the bill puts substantial amounts of federal acreage off-limits not only to oil and gas, but also to renewable energy sources. "Even if they wanted to use some of the acreage for wind or solar, the wilderness designations won't allow it. If we can't put renewable solar facilities in the middle of the desert, for example, where should we put them?" Sims said.

At the press conference following the bill's passage, Rahall said that the legislation took a long, torturous path toward final passage. "Given the tough financial times we face in this country, I think the American people can applaud legislation that protects the pristine public lands, the clear-running streams and rivers, the wide open spaces and the unique history that make this nation great," Rahall said.

But Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the Natural Resources Committee's ranking minority member, said following the bill's passage that its approval came without a fair and open congressional review. "The appalling lack of transparency in this process is even more troubling because this bill increases unchecked federal spending, denies disabled individuals truce access to wilderness areas, weakens our border security, and prohibits American-made energy production and new jobs on federal lands," Hastings said.

US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who guided the legislation through the Senate, said that Mar. 25 was "a splendid day for America's special places." Bingaman said, "I can't think of a single bill that has ever done more to ensure the enjoyment of, and access to, wilderness areas, historic sites, national parks, forest, rivers, trails, public lands and water resources. Altogether, it is one of most sweeping conservation laws that Congress has passed in many, many years."

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