North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) called it an "unfortunate circumstance" that Democrats on the Senate National Parks Subcommittee had decided to review 21 public lands bills together last month at the panel's inaugural hearing of the 112th Congress.
While none of the bills was especially controversial -- they included proposals to create new wilderness in Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, transfer a privately managed New Mexico preserve to the National Park Service, create a new Pinnacles National Park in California and add dozens of miles of wild and scenic rivers in Oregon -- Republicans on the committee said they had neither the staff nor the time to prepare for that many bills in a single hearing.
"It is very difficult and overly burdensome for both staff and members, especially those new to this committee who are not acquainted with these bills or the overarching issues, to adequately prepare," said Burr, the subcommittee's ranking member at the time, who is viewed as a leading Republican supporter of conservation.
"I hate to be starting this year in such a contentious fashion," he told his colleagues. "I hope that this won't serve as a permanent blemish on the subcommittee."
Burr's words were striking considering that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee historically has been envied for its reliance on bipartisan consensus on thorny issues including energy policy, oil spill response and public lands.
But the scene that played out in early May suggests the difficulties conservationists and their allies in Congress face in passing substantive public lands bills this session.
"The challenge now is there are a lot of members who really don't want to do large public lands omnibus bills," said a former Republican staffer in the Senate who helped craft the 2009 public lands omnibus package. "There's a sense particularly in the House that big is bad."
Lawmakers may instead take a page from President Obama's energy playbook by passing public lands bills "in chunks" rather than packaging them all together into one.
But while lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen bills to designate more than 10 million acres of wilderness in several Western states, it is unclear which members will emerge as grown-ups to strike bipartisan compromises on public lands legislation.
Even less clear is whether they will find the bipartisan ingredients of last Congress to move proposals to the president's desk.
"There are some philosophical objections on the part of some members," said ENR Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), when asked whether lawmakers would support a lands package. His committee has six new Republicans -- including tea party-affiliated Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah -- and three new Democrats. "They just oppose the whole idea of the federal government imposing additional protections on some of these lands."
While he said he hoped to pass as many bills as possible, Bingaman said he was uncertain whether any public lands packages will actually pass this session.
Something for everyone?
Conservationists say they are looking to Bingaman and committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to build the foundations of a viable public lands package.
The two lawmakers stood side-by-side behind Obama as he signed the 2009 public lands omnibus before a crowd of hundreds in the East Room of the White House.
That bill is widely viewed as one of the biggest conservation milestones in a generation. With the stroke of a pen, it added more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers, three national park units, a national monument and numerous other conservation measures.
Both lawmakers had a stake in the bill's passage -- Bingaman had provisions to settle long-standing tribal water rights claims and promote healthy forests, while Murkowski included a provision to facilitate a road in Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a necessary but painful compromise for conservationists.
The bill also drew widespread Republican support in the Senate thanks to the inclusion of other GOP proposals, including a Utah lands bill from former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) -- who was defeated by Lee in 2010 -- the Owyhee wilderness from Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and the Wyoming Range Legacy Act from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
The question many observers are now asking is whether there are Republican-backed proposals that could sweeten the pot, so to speak, for public lands packages in the 112th Congress.
"There's always going to be a price to play," said one former Democratic House staffer.
Some speculate that could include Murkowski's proposal to allow an Alaska Native corporation to log tens of thousands of acres in the Tongass National Forest or a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to facilitate the construction of a major copper mine in Arizona, both of which have drawn howls from environmentalists.
"We have talked about Sealaska all along, and I think [Bingaman] really appreciates the fact that we've worked so hard to try to incorporate some of the comments from the communities around the state," Murkowski said of the Tongass bill, which, while revamped from last Congress, will likely require considerable changes to appease the Obama administration.
Murkowski did not indicate whether movement on her bill is a precondition for her support of a public lands package but said she would "work very aggressively to finally provide the equity that Sealaska is seeking."
McCain, who opposed a unanimous consent request last December to bring public lands bills to the floor partly because of the exclusion of his copper mining legislation, was less vague when asked if its passage was necessary for his support of a lands package.
"Of course," he said. "It was passed through the committee last year, so it's a very big, important issue to the state of Arizona and America's economy."
But conservation bills, regardless of whether they are paired with economic development, will be a tough sell for many Republicans, particularly freshman members of both chambers who have deep concerns with placing new restrictions on public lands or authorizing new spending for national parks or monuments.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House's public lands subcommittee and a regular critic of wilderness measures, often points to a lesser-known provision in the 2009 omnibus that codified the Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System, which includes 27 million acres of national monuments, conservation areas, wilderness and other protected lands.
While the program has broad appeal among conservationists and local communities, Bishop has argued it is a poster child for bureaucratic waste and is an example of the kinds of poison pills that often get bundled into omnibus measures.
Part of the success of the 2009 omnibus package can be attributed to a large backlog of wilderness and other public lands bills that accumulated while the House and Senate were under Republican leadership.
While it has been more than two years since a wilderness bill has passed, some experts note that there is less pent-up demand for bills than there was in the 110th and 111th sessions of Congress.
Thus, the success of lands bills this session may depend largely on how strongly they are pushed by the sponsors themselves. Lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, will have to convince party leaders that their lands bills are important enough to devote precious floor time.
Bingaman, who has introduced two bills that would protect more than half a million acres in New Mexico, is seen as a likely champion of wilderness who will push hard to pass his measures before his retirement at the end of 2012.
"Chairman Bingaman is a great example," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society. "He has put forward a number of thoughtful proposals. He's done the community outreach, sought public input and really done his homework."
Other Senate lawmakers could include Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is pushing his keystone "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" ahead of a tough re-election campaign against Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).
Tester, who is a member of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, may again try to attach his proposal to an agency spending bill instead of bundling it with other lands proposals. His proposal also may not pass muster with Bingaman, who has expressed opposition to the bill's timber mandates.
Other candidates to push lands bills could include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has reintroduced her "California Desert Protection Act," or Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has a proposal to actively treat millions of acres of forests in eastern Oregon.
Senate leadership will be faced with a dilemma of keeping packages small enough for the Republican House to accept, while not leaving too many lawmakers' bills out in the cold.
"On the House side, there is a disposition against doing large public lands omnibus bills, institutionally from the speaker on down," said the former Senate Republican staffer, who noted the House's recent decision to break up a trio of Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings' (R-Wash.) offshore drilling bills into separate pieces.
"On the flip side, they have the challenge that in order to get the 60 votes needed to bring a bill to the floor, you have to have a really large bill in the Senate," the former staffer said. "It's going to be tough to overcome."
While Senate procedural hurdles alone can take more than 10 days to overcome, one alternative is asking the chamber for unanimous consent for individual bills, a process that, while once common, has run into opposition from critics including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Some lawmakers tried to pass noncontroversial, bipartisan lands bills in the waning hours of the last Congress but were stymied by members who complained that their bills had been left out of the mix.
"There were a lot of small but important bills in that package that covered many states and members of both parties, and there was a lot of disappointment," said Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D), who had a bill to allow summertime recreation on ski resorts in national forests. "It fell short, and in the meantime, we've lost a whole summer season that the ski areas could have used to develop more activities, which would then meet our mission here, which is job creation."
While public lands bills have gotten off to a galloping start in the Senate ENR Committee -- roughly 50 proposals have already had hearings -- the House Natural Resources Committee has yet to review any major conservation bills.
Wilderness "grown-ups" may be harder to find in the House committee, which has so far focused its efforts on passing bills to fast-track energy developments on public lands and waters and curtailing federal red tape.
But a handful of Republican lawmakers in the House have introduced wilderness bills that could pressure Hastings and GOP leadership to take action. Bishop said he also expects to introduce county-level wilderness bills in this Congress if he sees consensus between commissioners and other stakeholders in Utah.
Many are looking to Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R), who is viewed as a key Republican ally of public lands, to lead the chamber's efforts to craft a public lands package. For more than a decade, Simpson has pushed a bill to designate some 330,000 acres of new wilderness in central Idaho while releasing more than 100,000 acres into multiple use.
But as chairman of the House subcommittee that funds Interior, he has also indicated a willingness to attach his legislation to a must-pass funding bill. He said he is still at "loggerheads" over the bill with Idaho Sen. James Risch R), a one-time sponsor of the proposal who withdrew his support last summer amid opposition from the state's governor and off-highway vehicle community.
Whether Simpson and other Republican wilderness sponsors have the appetite to aggressively push their bills in the 112th Congress remains unclear.
"There probably is [an appetite], but it's just not ready yet," said Simpson, who is joined by Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and David Dreier of California and Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington, who have also introduced wilderness bills.
Simpson said he expects to see a broader push for wilderness in the House either in late fall or next year. "I'm willing to help," he said. "Everything is an option. I don't rule anything out after 10 years of trying to push this bill."
House Democrats, while largely supportive of wilderness and other conservation bills, may oppose some public lands packages if they become saddled with provisions that release other lands or fast-track harmful developments, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
"When we start carving out areas for development and carte blanche for energy development, you've basically sold out the designation," Grijalva said.
"I think it's going to be very difficult," he added. "There's an ideological issue here, not among the more seasoned Republican colleagues, but some of the new people who are dogmatic about wilderness designation."