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Republicans On House Natural Resources Committee Planning Big Changes For Public Lands
Never let the pendulum swing too wide in either direction.
When the political winds blow too far right or left the governing balance is upset. That's true whether you're talking about the city council or Congress.
This week, of course, the focus is tightly on the Congress, which has undergone a sea change of political persuasion, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives.
It could be argued that this swing to the right is a rebound of a swing too far left, one in which the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress felt so emboldened that compromise and even statesmanship were unnecessary.
So now the pendulum has rebounded far to the right. Its swing has set off fears that, when it comes to the environment, the next two years might not bring good tidings.
Conservation Groups Hope New Congress Holds The Line On Environment
At the Natural Resources Defense Council, officials dispatched emails across the country Wednesday to rally support against the dismantling of environmental initiatives for clean air and water and which would offset climate change.
“There was no mandate on turning back the clock on environmental protection. Polls galore show continued and strong public support for making continued progress to protect our health and boost our economy,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund. “Americans want us to unleash our ingenuity to develop clean-energy alternatives while combating climate change.”
“We look forward to working with the next Congress and the Obama administration. But those who seek to reverse 40 years of environmental progress will find us fighting for the American public who made it clear yesterday that they want clean air and clean water," she continued. "Among them are those who overwhelmingly defeated an oil industry-sponsored ballot initiative designed to gut California's first-in-the-nation climate change law and re-elected most of the House members who voted for the House clean energy bill last year.”
A similar message went out from National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold, who said that, "Americans may have voted for change in Congress, but no one voted to increase pollution."
"Senators should use their lame duck session to dedicate Clean Water Act fines paid by BP to the immediate restoration of America's Gulf Coast. After reporting a $1.8 billion profit for the last quarter, BP cannot be allowed to stick taxpayers with the bill for its disaster," said Mr. Yarnold. "Senators can also ensure that the Land and Water Conservation Fund receives full funding. These vital steps will demonstrate bipartisan cooperation at a time when it is needed more than ever.
"The new Congress can also realistically defend America from the risk of diminished air quality by opposing efforts to block EPA enforcement of the Clean Air Act."
At the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Executive Director Scott Groene said the election results will require conservation groups such as his to persevere as they have before in similar situations.
"Elections matter for our public lands. Last night brought enormous change for the worse. Wilderness may be a bi-partisan issue, although it fares better under one party and that party was crushed last night. But we’ve overcome bad elections before by uniting supporters in the face of great threats," said Mr. Groene, also in an email alert.
"A similar election in 1994 threw us into a horrendous legislative fight that few thought we could win. But we did, nationalizing the need for redrock protection along the way, and winning two million acres of protection through designation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. What appeared a disaster was converted through grassroots action into a stunning amount of redrock protected. Sometimes strength comes through adversity."
At The Wilderness Society, President Bill Meadows said the change in power need not spawn a change in environmental protection in the country.
“America’s shared public lands have always been a beloved part of our collective livelihood and natural heritage. Even as election results are still trickling in, people are benefiting from our public lands -- by enjoying the peace and quiet of nature, doing their day-to-day restoration or tourism jobs, drinking clean water and breathing fresh air, and much more," he said in a statement.
“Conservation has always been—and continues to be—a bi-partisan issue that enjoys broad public support. New members of Congress, irrespective of their political affiliation, present new opportunities for conservation. The Wilderness Society looks forward to working constructively with new and returning members to protect the wild places that belong to every American, as we have done for more than 75 years."
But Mr. Meadows' request that Congress, when it returns to work, pass "20 bills that protect 4 million acres of wildlands -- 2 million of which would become part of the Wilderness System -- likely will not be well-received in a GOP-controlled House Natural Resources Committee. Two of the committee's most vocal Republicans when it comes to environmental issues are not fans of officially designated wilderness.
Some Republicans Already Planning Change In Public Lands Management
Fresh off their Election Day tidal wave, and energized by it, U.S. Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, envision big changes for public lands in the West, changes that could greatly impact national parks.
While the Democratic Party's slim majority in the Senate could stand in the way of those plans, expect plenty of effort in the coming two years to be spent by some members of the House to rewrite the rules when it comes to public lands. Two congressmen who might be found at the front of the line when it comes to redrafting environmental regs and policy could be Mr. Hastings and Mr. Bishop, two Republicans whose legislative records and public comments show a disdain for federal ownership of Western lands.
Less than 24 hours after their party's sweeping victory gave the GOP control over the House of Representatives, Rep. Hastings announced his priorities for the Natural Resources Committee.
The Republican, who hopes to chair that committee when the 112th Congress convenes next year, pointed to more energy development on public lands and staunch opposition to any effort by the Obama administration to designate national monuments.
“Like all committees, one of our top priorities on the Natural Resources Committee will be cutting spending and bringing fiscal sanity back to Washington, D.C.," Rep. Hastings said. "The days of big government spending are over and we must take a hard look at what our country can truly afford during these times of soaring deficits and record debt.
“Creating new jobs and giving a much needed boost to the economy will also be at the forefront of our agenda. Through the responsible stewardship of our natural resources we can put Americans to work, strengthen our economy and protect the environment. This includes increasing domestic energy production through an all-of-the-above energy plan and ensuring that public lands are actually open to the public," he added. "The livelihoods of rural communities, especially in the West, are dependent on the smart use of our public lands, water, timber, minerals and energy resources."
The Bush administration had a similar attitude on energy exploration, and moved late in 2008 to open up public lands near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and Dinosaur National Monument, in Utah to oil and gas exploration. The incoming Obama administration quickly reversed that course, taking action to more closely conduct due environmental diligence to determine whether exploration on parcels offered for development would imperil the parklands.
Rep. Hastings has a record of opposing national park initiatives beyond his state and striving to legislate management of the parks within his state. For instance, he and his GOP colleagues on the parks subcommittee last January criticized their Democratic colleagues for supporting a $50 million proposal to create a Castle Nugent National Historic Site roughly three miles south of St. Croix's principal town of Christianstedon in the Virgin Islands.
And earlier this year, when oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was coming ashore at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Rep. Hastings criticized the Obama administration for its moratorium on off-shore drilling.
But back home in Washington, Mr. Hastings has worked to have the Park Service realign a wilderness boundary at North Cascades National Park so a deadend road could be moved out of a floodplain and pushed legislation to force North Cascades officials to stock non-native fish in some of the park's barren lakes.
Mr. Hastings also opposed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill of 2009 because it would block energy development on some public lands.
Rep. Bishop, meanwhile, has been a vocal opponent of environmental regulations. He not only spoke out against additional national monuments, but has worked -- so far unsuccessfully -- with Rep. Hastings to introduce legislation that essentially would block the National Park Service and Interior Department from enforcing The Wilderness Act or the Endangered Species Act along the country's border with Mexico if those laws prevented the Border Patrol from doing its job.
Interestingly, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, asked by Rep. Bishop to look into border issues and environmental regulations, just concluded that environmental laws are not hampering the Border Patrol's efforts to control the border. Rather, the GAO report noted, the rugged landscape is the major impediment to the Border Patrol's efforts.
But Mr. Bishop, in a statement issued in early October after he saw a draft of the report, argued that, "The severity of the crisis along the border cannot be underestimated. This report reveals shocking details that illustrate how U.S. so-called environmental policies are contributing to the ongoing crime and violence along the southern U.S.-Mexico border."
But as the Traveler pointed out Monday, the GAO report found that while the environmental regulations at times led to delays and restrictions for Border Patrol agents in accessing federal lands, "22 of the 26 Border Patrol stations reported that the border security status of their area of operation has not been affected by land management laws."
Rep. Bishop, who cruised to a fifth term Tuesday and wants to chair one of the Natural Resource Committee's subcommittees, has a woefully weak record when it comes to environmental issues.
The Republican from Utah 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;
* Gone on what best could be described as fishing expeditions with requests that the Park Service produce years worth of unspecified “communications” documents between the agency and advocacy groups as well as the media;
* Been involved, according to the NPCA, in watering down legislation intended to help restore cultural, historical, and archaeological resources on public lands, including those within the National Park System.
Mr. Bishop's record and stands on resource development is more than a little ironic in that his home state greatly values its natural resources -- namely the national parks and surrounding canyon lands, as well as the skiing in the Wasatch Range -- for their tourism value.
The congressman's record projects a biographical picture of 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.
Better fiscal fitness is indeed needed in Congress, there can be no doubt. But so is moderation, statesmanship, and working across the aisle. When either party tries to ram its legislative agenda through without allowing thoughtful input from the other party, the result runs a high risk of being ugly.
Of course, trying to hew to compromise, moderation, and collaboration in Congress is tough at best due to politics, as Robert Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah noted in his 2003 book, Keeping Faith With Nature.
Political considerations, however, invariably temper Congress's legislative activities and its use of federal power. In fact, the congressional political process effectively enables regional interests to exert considerable influence over any legislation with predominately local consequences. In the case of the public lands, western senators and representatives traditionally have held a near "veto" power over any reform proposals. Westerners generally dominate the congressional committees primarily responsible for public lands legislation, namely the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the House Resources Committee. They usually hold the powerful chair position on these committees, which carries the ability to control the flow of legislation. In the Senate, hoary traditions and privileges commonly enable one or a few determined senators to block unwelcome legislative initiatives, particularly if the matter is of uniquely local consequence. From this power base, western delegations have regularly used oversight hearings, budget negotiations appropriations riders, and other institutional prerogatives to shape and influence public land policies. And based on election results since the 1980s, the western delegations, especially from the interior West, are increasingly dominated by conservative Republicans aligned with the traditional extractive industries and strongly predisposed against additional wilderness designations or more federal environmental regulation.