Washington politics are infuriating, disappointing, enlightening, and entertaining. They rarely are dull. That is obvious based on what has transpired since October 1, when the federal government ran out of money.
* We saw a 16-day closure of the National Park System initially spurred by House Republicans...who then castigated National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis for how the parks were shuttered.
* We received a 208-page report from U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, that blamed the current state of the park system largely on those in Congress, but also on Park Service management.
* Most recently, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on Congress to support President Obama's broad conservation agenda...or the president will use his executive powers to move forward on parts of it.
In a speech last week before the National Press Club, the Interior secretary pointed to the value of public lands when it comes to climate change, clean air and water, and local economies. She talked about preserving these lands for generations yet to be born, of the need to "think about what conservation legacy we will leave for the next 50 years, for the next 100 years."
In short, she urged Congress to put up or shut up.
"The real test of whether you support conservation is not what you say in a press conference when the cameras are rolling, but whether you fight for it in the budget conference," Secretary Jewell told those at the Press Club gathering.
Some figurative fighting began last week almost immediately after Sen. Coburn issued his report, Parked! How Congress' Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures, sections of which questioned the appropriateness of some units of the park system, such as Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. That immediately spurred bipartisan backlash from that state's congressional delegation, which pointed to the park not only as a breathtaking landscape but a key economic timber for area communities.
Which brings us back to Secretary Jewell's speech, which drew praise from the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, two groups that were critical of Sen. Coburn's take on the parks.
“With less than three years before the centennial of our National Park System, we agree with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that Congress should adopt a rational budget that recognizes the value of national parks, conservation and their economic contribution to communities nationwide," said Theresa Pierno, NPCA's acting president. "We also agree that there is a need to improve the balance between conservation and energy development on our public lands and to continue to protect important new natural and cultural areas as national monuments.
“Secretary Jewell’s strong statements on the value of conservation to our nation and to our future are welcome, and should be heeded. The Secretary was correct that, in the wake of the federal government shutdown, the real test of congressional support for national parks, park visitors, and local park economies will be the outcome of the budget conference now occurring between the House and Senate," Ms. Pierno went on. "The administration’s response to that conference and the president’s budget proposal for FY 2015 will also be tests. The National Parks Conservation Association calls on Congress to end the mindless sequester cuts and restore critically needed investments in our national parks and public lands. We also call on the administration to propose a budget for FY 2015 that takes meaningful, bold steps to restore and renew our national parks and ready them for their second century."
Coalition officials issued a short, but definitive, statement endorsing the secretary's speech: "CNPSR fully endorses the programs she outlined and her eloquent defense of the nation's national parks, public lands and the overall work of the Department of the Interior. Secretary Jewell is thinking big and that is befitting for the Department Head that stewards the vast majority of the nation's public lands."
While leading Republicans in Congress likely will give little merit to the Interior secretary's speech, they might focus on her mention that President Obama "is ready and willing to step up where Congress falls short" when it comes to conserving public lands as wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, units of the National Park System, or in some other protected form.
To buttress that point, Secretary Jewell said that "(I)n the coming weeks and months, I will be meeting with communities and evaluating opportunities where action can ensure that our nation’s stories and landscapes are honored, celebrated and preserved for the generations to come."
Her road trip likely will draw ire from U.S. Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who in particular have been highly vocal in the past with their opposition to the president wielding his executive power to create, for example, national monuments.
The ongoing partisan rancor, which has led to congressional grandstanding, poses a great danger to the country's conservation movement if it's allowed to overwhelm positive steps that are being made.
Among currently pending legislation that would further conservation across the country are:
* H.R. 139, the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act that would preserve the Arctic coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, as wilderness.
* H.R. 145, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act that would create more than 333,000 acres of wilderness in Idaho.
* S. 1294, the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would create more than 19,550 acres of wilderness in Tennessee
Unfortunately, these measures' chances of passage are gauged by govtrack.us as being slim or none.
Here's hoping that Congress shows some rare statesmanship in guiding the affairs of the country.