What should we think of a congressman on a national parks subcommittee who endorses a resolution “recognizing that country music has made a tremendous contribution to American life and culture,” and yet opposes legislation that would create hundreds of thousands of acres of official wilderness across the National Park System?
Should it raise any eyebrows when this congressman votes to strip the White House of its appropriation for all environmental staff, including those on the Council of Environmental Quality, and who opposes legislation to clean up the Great Lakes?
Does the fact that the League of Conservation Voters and Republicans for Environmental Protection are in full agreement that this congressman, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, is incredibly bad for the environment make you wonder why he was appointed the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands?
A four-term congressman from Utah’s 1st Congressional District, Rep. Bishop received the worst score among all House Republicans on environmental issues from Republicans for Environmental Protection, and did not once vote in step with the League of Conservation Voters on key issues it tracked from 2005 through 2008.
With 535 members in Congress, Mr. Bishop’s voting record might not be of much concern, except that he’s the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, a position he’s used, some say, to be an obstructionist when it comes to protecting and preserving the environment. For instance, Rep. Bishop has:
* Opposed the National Landscape Conservation System, which would not create any new federally owned lands but rather “conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes (within the existing BLM domain) that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations;”
* Opposed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 that created more than 2 million acres of officially designated wilderness, including more than 235,000 in and around Zion National Park in his home state of Utah;
* Gone on what best could be described as fishing expeditions with requests that the Park Service produces years worth of unspecified “communications” documents between the agency and advocacy groups as well as the media.
The congressman also takes pride in the successful efforts to force the Interior Department to change regulations concerned the possession of firearms in national parks and national wildlife refuges.
“I can’t think of any public lands, conservation or protection measure that he would support. I just don’t know of any,” says Jim DiPeso, the policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection. “Even something as innocuous as codifying the National Landscape Conservation System so it becomes a statutory system like the parks and the wildlife refuges, he fought that. He fought it tooth and nail. He thought it was a big land grab. Well no, it’s not. These lands have been federal, again, since the Mexican War, the Louisiana Purchase. All we’re doing is codifying their current status. So somebody like him, I don’t know anything that he would fight for.”
Rep. Bishop’s office has ignored numerous requests dating back to August to interview the congressman to better understand 1) his mission on the national parks subcommittee; 2) why he’s been linked to Sen. Tom Coburn’s hold on Jon Jarvis as National Park Service director, and; 3) why he’s so bent on unearthing paper trails between the National Park Service and outside advocacy groups.
What we’re left with are efforts to discern his intent from his voting record, which turns up some outwardly curious misdirections. For instance:
* While he voted in favor of a reauthorizing the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Citizen Advisory Committee, he opposed a resolution to “recognize the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve (a 380-acre tract managed by the Park Service as part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway) as a unique and precious ecosystem.”
* Though he voted to reauthorize the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004, on the same day he opposed the Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act.
* Though he voted in favor of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Town of Blowing Rock Land Exchange Act of 2009, he opposed the Waco Mammoth National Monument Establishment Act of 2009.
* While he supported the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Enhancement Act, he also declined to cosponsor legislation to create the National Park Centennial Act Fund or a resolution to recognize July as “National Park and Recreation Month.”
What comes through is that Rep. Bishop is a fiscal conservative, one who believes states are better at managing public lands than the federal government, and who views the National Park Service as an over-funded agency that private landowners need to be protected from. He’s also highly suspicious of advocacy groups, a tendency that has seen him twice this year ask the National Park Service for years and years of any and all correspondence between both the agency itself and individual parks with outside groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, the Grand Canyon Trust, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Arizona Archeological Council, the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the media.
That said, in truth Mr. Bishop isn’t really that unusual from any number of Western congressman, Mr. DiPeso said during a telephone interview. While Republicans in the Northeast, in the upper Midwest, and along the Pacific Coast tend to be more moderate in their approach to public lands, that's not usually the case in the Rocky Mountain West, he said.
“Within the Intermountain West -- Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana -- you have a faction of Republicans that feels public lands are there to be used,” he said. “They’re there to be dug, mined, cut, grazed, the resources are there to be put to economic use, whereas the other faction (of Republicans) adheres to that older tradition, the one that Theodore Roosevelt pioneered, 100 years ago...”
Republicans for Environmental Protection strives to revive that conservation ethos, explained Mr. DiPeso, saying “it’s a matter of patriotic duty to protect our wildlife, our public lands. Europe has its cathedrals and Asia its temples, we have these wonderful natural landscapes that are symbols of our country.
“That’s the older conservation ethos. We consider that to be true conservatism, protecting great landscapes and wildlife in our country both for their symbolic and cultural value,” he continued. “But then you have this exploitative, utilitarian mindset. ‘My gosh, the lands and the trees, the rangelands and the mountains, the minerals, they’re there to be tapped,’ and, ‘My gosh, anybody who opposes that is opposed to markets and capitalism and all that is good.’
“It’s a really deep philosophical divide, and what you have there, you have a guy like Rob Bishop, who is one of the more extreme adherents to that utilitarian point of view, who just has this implacable opposition to any kind of expansion of protection, whether that means new wilderness areas, developing the National Landscape Conservation System on the BLM lands, any kind of expanded protection. Rob Bishop and people who think like him automatically get suspicious and are inclined to oppose it.”
Wyoming’s congressional delegation also seems to teeter on this overly consumptive approach. Earlier this year Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican who came to Congress to fill the unexpired term of the late Craig Thomas, was one of two senators opposing the nomination of Mr. Jarvis as NPS director. From his seat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee the senator said Mr. Jarvis was the face of the Obama administration’s “extreme” environmental policies, policies that Sen. Barrasso said “will put environmental ideology before the public interest.”
The senator’s comments were tied to the Interior Department’s 318-snowmobile-per-day limit in Yellowstone National Park for the next two winters. Despite his rhetoric, Sen. Barrasso -- who it’s been said doesn’t hold a deep conservation ethic -- did pick up and carry to passage Sen. Thomas’s legislation to protect the Wyoming Range in the state’s southwestern corner from rampant energy development, as well as legislation to include 387 miles of Wyoming rivers and streams -- including the headwaters of the Snake River -- in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Those are no small achievements in a state where more than a few believe wolves and grizzly bears should be shot on sight.
But perhaps Mr. Thomas was something of an anomaly. Growing up in Cody, Wyoming, just beyond Yellowstone’s East Entrance, he had a lifelong love of national parks. As a senator he worked for their betterment by calling for more funding, opposed the $80 price tag of the America the Beautiful public lands pass, was concerned about the possible impact overflights could have on Grand Teton National Park, and was disappointed with efforts in 2006 to greatly overhaul the Park Service’s Management Policies.
Congress is strewn with politicians who have tried time and again to reduce the federal public lands holdings. During the Bush administration the House Natural Resources Committee was chaired by Richard Pombo, a Californian who once joked about selling off units of the National Park System and who wanted to gut the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Pombo appointed Stevan Pearce of New Mexico as chairman of the national parks subcommittee, and in that role Mr. Pearce at times considered tinkering with the National Park Service Organic Act as well as the National Park Service’s Management Policies.
Former Congressman Jim Hansen of Utah actually wanted to decommission some national parks, including Great Basin National Park. Mr. Hansen, who was succeeded by Mr. Bishop, was highly critical of President Bill Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and worked to limit the president’s powers under the Antiquities Act.
It should come as a no surprise that Westerners often hold sway on the various committees with public lands oversight, said Mr. DiPeso.
“The reason why Westerners tend to predominate on those committees is because that, as (the late House Speaker Thomas) Tip O’Neill once said, ‘all politics is local.’ For these guys, these are local issues that directly affect their constituents and their districts, and for members in the East, yes these lands are public, they belong to everybody, but unless you’re somebody like (former Republican Congressman) Jim Saxton (of New Jersey) who just happens to take a strong interest in these issues, you’re gonna be focused on what’s going on in your district and you’re going to tend to follow the lead of others on these issues, and you won’t take as close an interest,” he said.
“Does Rob Bishop really care all that much about the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge on the Jersey shore, or Cape Cod National Seashore, or Cape Hatteras? Probably not. He cares more about what’s happening in southern Utah.”
At the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah Law School in Salt Lake City, Director Robert Keiter offered that political gamesmanship is at play in the various appointments to the public lands committees.
“I think unfortunately the public lands in the western United States have become something of a political dividing point between Democrats and Republicans during the past 30 to 50 years, and that’s reflected in basically different management philosophies that they tend to bring to the table and the constituencies that they tend to represent and serve,” said Professor Keiter. “So you have the Democrats much more receptive to preservation-type arguments, and protecting and preserving areas like national parks, wilderness areas, and that sort of thing, while Republicans tend to be more receptive to arguments that these resources need to be developed in the near future and are vital to local economies.”
Too, he added a few moments later, “I think what you see in Congress is the party leadership trying to accommodate the interests of the various congressmen, so you see the Western congressmen gravitating to these sorts of committees, and the leadership being comfortable with having them there, and using some of the issues that come up in these committees for broader political purposes, to paint a divide between Democrats and Republicans.”
While both Mr. DiPeso and Professor Keiter pointed to demographic trends that slowly are tempering some of the extreme politically conservative views in the Intermountain West, they don’t expect an overnight shift in the voting records of politicians such as Mr. Bishop.
“That sort of idea has been prevalent for some time, that with the exodus from California and elsewhere to the Rocky Mountain West that we see a shift in local politics, including at the congressional level,” Professor Keiter said. “And for a couple of decades now that argument has been made and we haven’t seen evidence of it across the board. These last couple of elections suggest that there may be some shifts occurring in some of the Intermountain states, and here I point to Colorado, Montana, New Mexico as potential examples of that.
“But I think it’s probably premature to say that that shift is embedded now in the local politics in the region,and I think we probably need a couple more election cycles to see how it holds up.”
We have yet to see Rep. Bishop introduce legislation seeking a new unit to the National Park System, and the most likely opportunity vanished last year when the old Yankee Stadium saw its last ball game and was given over to deconstruction.
Enter Mr. Bishop’s office in the Cannon Building in Washington and from the memorabilia crowding the walls you might guess him to be more a devout Yankees fan than lover of southern Utah’s canyon country. Perhaps if George Steinbrenner had suggested it, the congressman would have introduced legislation designating the old stadium a national historic site. If that had happened, though, it more than likely would be one more unit that the Park Service would once again have to figure out how to restore without sufficient funding. You see, Mr. Bishop also voted against the Interior Department’s 2010 budget.