INTERIOR:

Surprise move leaves wilderness policy on cutting-room floor

Congress' compromise budget to fund the government until October would temporarily halt an Interior Department effort to protect roadless areas in a shock for conservationists who'd fought to retain the three-month-old program.

The proposal to slash nearly $40 billion in spending through the rest of the fiscal year would strip funding for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's order to inventory and consider protecting wilderness-quality lands.

Found on page 304 of the 459-page spending bill, the wild lands proposal mirrors language from the continuing resolution that the House passed in February but was excluded from the Senate's proposed short-term funding bill.

If passed, the proposal would postpone what is considered one of the Obama administration's cornerstone policies to protect unspoiled lands in the West.

But that won't be the last challenge to the Bureau of Land Management program. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee and a chief critic of the "wild lands" plan, said he is focused on making sure the policy gets no funding in Interior's fiscal 2012 budget.

"It is important to me, but I don't want to lose the long-term goal that this only funds the government through the end of [the fiscal year]," Bishop said late last month. "If I get it in this CR but not in the 2012 budget, I haven't won anything."

The wild lands order announced in late December overturned a 2003 settlement between the George W. Bush administration and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) that tossed the BLM's wilderness guidance and ended a policy of identifying wilderness study areas.

Republican leaders in the House loudly opposed the order and argued it would allow the federal government to "lock up" lands essential to oil and gas development, grazing, off-highway vehicles and other uses, a charge administration officials and conservation groups have denied.

Dozens of Democrats, conservationists and resources law professors in past months argued the policy is well within BLM's statutory authority under a landmark public lands law passed in the 1970s. Regional BLM personnel, in fact, had been asking the national office for clearer guidance on how to manage roadless lands, the agency said.

But the plan drew powerful opposition among oil and gas trade groups, motorized recreation groups and county and state officials, including the governors of Idaho and Utah who came to Capitol Hill last month to testify against the plan.

"The longer this initiative has been out in the public, the more concerns I hear about the impact it will have on ranching, energy production, recreation and even the BLM's own ability to manage their lands," said Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R), the House's top appropriator for Interior. "To that list, I would add my own deep concern that with this initiative, the department has overstepped its authority."

Simpson, echoing the concerns of Bishop and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), said only Congress has the authority to create new land designations.

BLM has promised that wild lands designations would be made judiciously and not without input from the public. Moreover, wild lands are temporary designations and could allow non-wilderness activities including fence building, limited motorized vehicle use and mountain biking if they would not impair wilderness qualities.

The House's earlier continuing resolution, H.R. 1, contained 16 legislative riders, including several related to greenhouse gases and other U.S. EPA matters including mountaintop removal mining.

But in the end, the wild lands language and a provision to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho were the only riders in the Interior and EPA section of the budget to survive.

"We were surprised," said Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society, a supporter of the wild lands policy. "Might have been a late deal, because it wasn't really a part of the conversation -- or so we thought."

Even Bishop's office as late as yesterday afternoon was unsure whether the rider would be in the final package.

An Interior spokeswoman late last night could not immediately confirm whether the agency had been informed the wild lands provision would make the final package.

"What we achieved was an imperfect result to be sure," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, in a statement late last night. "But it represented a compromise that the president believed was in the best interests of the nation while protecting the highest priorities of his administration and the Democrats in Congress."

Other resource programs

There were also cuts to other conservation initiatives in the final CR.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund -- the main vehicle for acquiring new federal lands, protecting species and promoting urban recreation -- would be funded at $301 million, a $149 million cut below current levels but $244 million above H.R. 1.

The proposal weakens the Obama administration's odds of receiving its requested $900 million -- the maximum authorized -- in fiscal 2012 and threatens a central goal of the president's Great Outdoors initiative.

Additional funding would be shifted to Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to complete an overhaul of the former Minerals Management Service and implement a suite of reforms since the BP PLC oil spill a year ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

BOEMRE would be funded at $239 million, a $58 million increase over current funding levels and $14 million above the H.R. 1. The bill will enable the agency to double its oil and gas inspections team for the outer continental shelf, appropriators said.

The agency's director, Michael Bromwich, in recent weeks had expressed frustration that his agency had received 10 percent of a $100 million supplemental request the Obama administration submitted to Congress last year.

The budget would fund the National Park Service at $2.6 billion for the remaining fiscal year, including $2.3 billion for operations and $210 million for construction activities to address a maintenance backlog that has grown to more than $10 billion. The proposal is $112.7 million above levels proposed in H.R. 1.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would be funded at $1.51 billion, which is an increase of $238.9 million above H.R. 1. The proposal includes $37.5 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and $62 million for state and tribal wildlife grants.

The bill includes $4.7 billion for Forest Service operations, an 11 percent decrease from fiscal 2010 levels.

The budget also maintains funding for the Presidio Trust, the government-chartered corporation that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helped create to run her district's large national park.

House Republicans, in what some Democrats viewed as an intentional insult to Pelosi, proposed axing $15 million for the park in its continuing resolution (Greenwire, Feb. 17).

Reporter Elana Schor contributed.

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