House Natural Resources Committee mark-up mixed bag for wilderness

Jun 12, 2013

U.S. Capitol building

Library of Congress
The Wilderness Society opposes six bills and applauds two in House committee mark-up
The Wilderness Society today took a position on eight bills being marked-up in the House Natural Resources Committee: 
 
The Wilderness Society opposes: 
 
  • The Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act (H.R. 1825) would undermine protections for America’s wilderness by opening existing wilderness areas to road construction, motorized vehicles, and other activities. Similar to the “Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012,” The Wilderness Society opposes the following provisions in the bill:
    • Sec. 4(e)(1) - Under this provision, all existing wilderness would be open to construction of temporary roads, use of motorized equipment, use of mechanized vehicles, landing of aircraft, construction of structures or installations, or new motorized access for agencies, where such activities are related to hunting, fishing, recreational shooting, or fish and wildlife conservation to serve the same.
       
    • Sec. 4(e)(2) could be interpreted to allow the use of motorized vehicles, temporary road construction, and other activities within wilderness areas where such activities used for hunting, fishing, or recreational shooting.
       
    • Section 4(c)(2) states that no analysis or consideration of environmental effects is necessary for any action taken under the Heritage Act.  This means that a federal agency may open or close an area to hunting or fishing, or develop shooting ranges on public land without considering any public input of environmental impacts, and the National Environmental Policy Act will not apply to such actions. 
 
“The ‘Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act’ would fundamentally undermine the protection of over 100 million acres of America’s Wilderness,” said Paul Spitler, senior representative at The Wilderness Society. “Wilderness areas provide some of America’s best hunting and fishing opportunities—destroying the habitat that fish and wildlife rely on is not good management and is not good for hunters or anglers.” 
 
Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (H.R. 740) would give away 70,075 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corporation – land that is predominantly outside of the authorized withdrawal areas that the Sealaska Corporation can currently select from pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. Once these lands are conveyed to the Sealaska Corporation, it would then be permitted to clearcut and develop these lands, including a significant portion of the last remaining large tree old-growth stands in the Tongass National Forest.
 
Native American Energy Bill (H.R. 1548) could have significant and damaging implications for many Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) corporation lands, potentially including Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC)lands within the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The legislation purports to promote and encourage increased energy production on tribal lands by reducing government barriers and streamlining burdensome procedures. While we are not opposed to the development of energy projects on Indian lands under the law, this bill goes far beyond that by severely limiting public involvement in the development of any major project on Indian lands, as well as by insulating potentially environmentally devastating energy projects on Indian lands (or even projects done in partnership with an Indian tribe on non-Indian lands) from judicial review. It further erodes the public interest by diminishing its full authority to conduct appraisals, especially in the context of land exchanges between the federal government and an Alaska Native Corporation. In addition, should H.R. 740 pass, the Sealaska Corporation would have many new inholdings spread across the Tongass in important watersheds, many of them key for salmon habitat, that may one day be at risk of industrial development, and the public would likely be shut out of participating in decision-making processes regarding uses of these lands.
 
National Petroleum Reserve Alaska Access Act (H.R. 1964) is unnecessary, and would upset the exemplary balance between energy development and wild land protection adopted in the Bureau of Land Management’s new integrated activity plan for the Reserve. The new plan is a “win-win” solution for both the oil and gas industry, which has over 70 percent of the Reserve’s estimated oil resources available to it, and protection of the environment. We see no reason for Congress to move forward with H.R. 1964, which would unnecessarily undermine the balanced approach to oil and gas development in the NPRA established by the new integrated activity plan.
 
Offshore Energy and Jobs Act (H.R. 2231) would dramatically expand offshore drilling, including in Alaska, and would do so without adequate NEPA review by requiring lease sales regardless of the projects' potential impacts. Section 204 of the bill would remove what CEQ regulations describe as the "heart" of the NEPA process – the consideration of all reasonable alternatives, including the "no action" alternative." Before making a decision, agencies must legitimately assess the relative merits of all reasonable alternatives – including those that are called to its attention by other agencies, organizations, communities, and members of the public. By eliminating the non-leasing alternative and legislatively prescribing what types of alternatives the agency may consider, the proposed legislation effectively shuts out all affected stakeholders and makes the NEPA process simply an exercise in paperwork on the way to a forgone conclusion.
 
The Grazing Improvement Act (H.R. 657) would create a number of loopholes and exemptions for the application of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and further adds to the numerous efforts aimed at weakening or eliminating this law which provides the public an opportunity to have a voice on public matters. We recognize that grazing, when done properly, is a legitimate use on appropriate public lands and we encourage the committee to work to improve this legislation to ensure grazing on public lands is done in a sustainable way with minimal negative impacts to our nation’s public lands, waters and wildlife as possible.
 
The Wilderness Society supports:
The California Coastal National Monument Expansion Act (H.R. 1411) would protect 1,100 acres of public land that is recognized for its natural and scenic values. Located three hours up the coast from San Francisco, this monument is home to the Point Arena Mountain Beaver, wetlands and wildlife, and could become the first land-based addition to the California Coastal National Monument. Residents of the area have worked with previous Congresses to introduce legislation that would protect the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. 
 
We were disappointed that an amendment from Congressman Bishop was agreed to which will limit future land acquisition and expansion of the monument, and will work to improve that language in the Senate for a clean bill moving forward.
 
“The 112th Congress was the first one since World War II to not protect a single new acre of public land as a national monument, national park or wilderness area,” said Ryan Bidwell, director of the national monuments campaign at The Wilderness Society. “Local communities across the country want the places they care about to be protected, and we are hopeful that the House Natural Resources Committee starts a new chapter and continues to hear citizen-crafted proposals like the California Coastal National Monument Expansion Act.”
 
Nashua River Wild and Scenic River Study Act (H.R. 412) would authorize the National Park Service to conduct a study on the Nashua River and two of its tributaries, the Squannacook and Nissitissit Rivers, to determine their eligibility for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Should the legislation pass, NPS will work with all stakeholders to develop a conservation plan in order to protect water quality and conserve open space. If and when the study determines the river’s eligibility for Wild and Scenic River status, legislation could then be introduced that would clean up polluted waters near the river, keep drinking water supplies clean, and protect the river for its multiple uses.
 
Frustrated with the 112th Congress’ inaction, local communities on the ground asked President Obama to protect the places they care about -- such as Fort Monroe in Virginia and the Rio Grande del Norte in northern New Mexico -- and he listened. The Wilderness Society urges Congress to now lead and pass citizen-crafted conservation.
 
Alan Rowsome
(202) 285-8134