PUBLIC LANDS:

In final hours, McCain objected to Reid package, ski area bill

Correction appended.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) this week blocked a package of public lands bills pushed by Democratic leadership after the removal of his own proposal to promote a land exchange in Arizona to allow a new copper mine.

An earlier version of the unanimous consent (UC) proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) "Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act," S. 409, which would give the Agriculture Department final say over a land exchange to allow a new copper mine on a national forest in Arizona.

The bill is opposed by environmental groups, American Indian tribes and Arizona's Democratic House members but passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March.

A larger earlier package by Reid also included proposals to designate more than 300,000 acres of new wilderness, establish new national parks and monuments and protect critical watersheds, forests and endangered species.

A spokeswoman for McCain said the senator objected to the smaller package -- which included bills involving ski area recreation, Nevada public lands, a Montana wilderness bill and removing protections for wolves -- after the copper mining bill was excluded.

A Reid spokeswoman said the Arizona senator had objected to the overall lands package.

"These bills were bi-partisan, non-controversial, and critical for all regions of the country," said Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle in an e-mail.

McCain and Kyl also objected yesterday to a bill by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would have given the Forest Service authority to permit summertime recreational use of ski areas in national forests.

The bipartisan "Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act" would create jobs, boost tourism and increase revenue to the federal government, Udall said during a speech on the Senate floor.

"It will help improve the economy in a lot of hard hit mountain communities throughout the country," he said.

Unanimous consent to pass the bill, which carried the support of Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R) and several Republican House co-sponsors, was denied by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia on McCain and Kyl's behalf.

Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of Energy and Natural Resources, said several Republicans objected to the size and scope of Reid's proposal at such a late stage of Congress and that GOP lawmakers had made several attempts to pare the package down to 10 to 20 bills.

"There were a lot of bills in there that could have been [passed by unanimous consent], but the Democrats decided to hold the entire package hostage to try to pass some very big lands bills, some wilderness bills," Dillon said.

Reid's UC package included a proposal to turn the Devil's Staircase in Oregon into federally protected wilderness and a House-passed Republican-sponsored bill to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington and extend the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and Pratt River wild and scenic rivers.

It also contained energy committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) "Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act" to protect 270,000 acres of wilderness along the New Mexican border with Mexico, a proposal that was passed unanimously by the committee and has garnered support from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Most of Reid's proposed bills could have earned bipartisan support for Senate passage, Dillon said, but not as part of a late-session blitz when many offices were short-staffed ahead of the holiday break.

"There wasn't enough time to work out a compromise," Dillon said. "And [Democrats] didn't want to work out a compromise. They wanted to ram them all through. We told them from the beginning, 'Listen, we're not going to do this. It's bad policy.'"

Many of the bills in Reid's package were among the 110 bills that he had put in his "America's Great Outdoors Act," which was unveiled late last week before being pulled amid Republican opposition Monday (E&ENews PM, Dec. 20).

The package's failure was a major blow to conservation groups that had lobbied hard for a larger suite of public lands proposals that would have protected more than 2 million acres as wilderness in more than a dozen states.

Many of those bills could face an uphill battle in the next Congress, when there will be a Republican-controlled House and a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

Incoming Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee said they are concerned that new wilderness restricts mechanical recreation and effectively bars resources extraction such as timber, minerals and oil and gas (Greenwire, Dec. 17).

"While time ran out this year for Congress to protect our shared public lands, we will continue to work with representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle as we have always done," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director at the Wilderness Society. "Americans have always been supportive of wilderness, and we will continue to work to protect the places we love."

Correction: An earlier version stated that McCain opposed a package of 65 public lands bills backed by Reid. McCain opposed a smaller group of public lands bills and did not formally object to the larger package.

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