With Congress facing the dual threats of looming tax hikes and potentially crippling spending cuts, lawmakers have little time left to pass dozens of public lands bills before the end of the lame-duck session.
Leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said they haven't agreed yet on a package, or packages, of public lands bills that could pass muster in both parties.
The impasse threatens to strand a bevy of proposals that passed the committee this Congress, including measures to designate new wilderness in Michigan, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee; to create Delaware's first national park unit; to acquire, conserve and expand historic battlefields; and to protect wild and scenic rivers in Washington and Delaware, to name just a few.
Barring any breakthroughs, the 112th Congress would be the first since 1966 and only the second since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act to designate no new wilderness, which is considered the highest form of public lands protection.
ENR Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) say they are committed to supporting a lands package that could garner bipartisan support. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included a public lands package on a list of some two dozen items he hopes to take up before the session ends.
But the biggest issue appears to be time.
"Before we left in September, there was a lot of energy being spent to see if we couldn't define what a package might look like," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's ranking member. "Our difficulty is twofold: You've got different ideas about what an omnibus or minibus would look like, and the biggest challenge is 'What is this calendar going to look like?'"
Staff face the perennial challenge of assembling packages that are noncontroversial and yet won't upset lawmakers whose personal bills were not included in the list.
"I think it's a pretty safe bet that anything that passes will have to be by [unanimous consent]," Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker said. "I don't think anyone is going to commit floor time to debating public lands bills."
But few expect any bills of substance to pass the Senate with no objections.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, in the past have opposed public lands packages that have excluded their bill to facilitate a large copper mine in Arizona, a proposal that is opposed by environmentalists and their Democratic allies.
And Murkowski is unlikely to back any substantive conservation measures unless her bill to convey lands in the Tongass National Forest to a Native Alaskan-owned corporation is included in the mix. That bill, S. 730, would not pass muster with conservation groups as currently written.
"We have brought dozens of offers to Democrats on lands packages that we thought would be able to go, and we've never been able to get them to agree to a package," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said. "Every time we bring a package of 10 or 12 bills we think will pass, what we get back is every Democratic bill pending before the committee as what they want to do."
He added, "We would like a lands package to go. We think there are packages that could move and make it to the president's desk."
But a package intended to pass by unanimous consent can't include large wilderness proposals, Dillon said. And it also cannot be as large as a public lands omnibus measure Reid proposed in the waning weeks of the last Congress (E&E Daily, Dec. 17, 2010).
In addition, tea party-backed senators including Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have opposed establishing new parks, which they say are too costly, or placing new restriction on access to public lands, regardless of whether they are supported by other Republicans.
"They feel they have got a very principled position in that regard, and so, welcome to my world," Wicker said. "Now you know why it's so difficult to pass public lands bills."
Wicker said bipartisan talks at the committee level continue but that he is not sure where they may lead. Bingaman has shared with Reid the list of the 65 bills his committee has reported this Congress in hopes of passing many of them.
Bingaman yesterday told E&E Daily that he has yet to resume talks on public lands with Murkowski since the Senate adjourned in September.
Seeking floor time 'among the fringes'
Nobody expected the 112th Congress to pass a package nearly as big as the last omnibus bill, signed into law in March 2009, which designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness, established three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas and more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, among other provisions.
But Congress still has time to pass some legislation, despite the fiscal challenges, conservationists said.
"We're in a fiscal crisis in this country, and I understand that Congress needs to prioritize making sure we have funding for national parks," said Kristin Brengel, lobbyist for the National Parks Conservation Association.
But Congress could pass proposals such as Wyden's bill to expand an Oregon Caves national monument, Bingaman's bills to protect Valles Caldera in New Mexico and establish a park commemorating the Manhattan Project and Republican-backed measures to expand historic battlefield protections at Gettysburg, Pa.; Vicksburg, Miss.; and Petersburg, Va., she said.
The Wilderness Society yesterday issued a statement urging Congress to pass nearly two dozen bipartisan wilderness bills that have stalled in Congress despite garnering strong local support.
"Passing these bills would not add to the deficit and would provide immediate economic benefits to struggling rural economies," the group said. "Amid the crowded lame duck agenda, Congress should find time to enact these bipartisan wilderness bills for the benefit of the American people."
Mike Matz, director of Pew's Campaign for America's Wilderness, said he is hopeful floor time will emerge in the weeks before the Senate takes up a solution to the so-called fiscal cliff.
"The most important thing, and the thing everybody hopes they get to, is the sequestration," Matz said, referring to the automatic across-the-board cuts that many fear will close national parks and refuges. "That's where we hope, everybody hopes, the country hopes, we have a meeting of the minds.
"But along the fringes ... there's going to be some floor time for a farm bill, cybersecurity and a public lands package might be able to be squeezed in."
Public lands was listed 21st out of 25 items on Reid's to-do list for the lame duck. Matz said he does not believe they were listed in order of importance.
A call to Reid's office was not returned.
For its part, the House in June passed a public lands package of its own, though it was the opposite of what conservation groups are envisioning in the Senate.
That bill included measures to strengthen security along the border, to overturn a National Park Service plan to protect birds and turtles on a North Carolina beach and to implement a version of Murkowski's Tongass bill, among nearly a dozen other provisions (E&E Daily, June 20).
A spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said she is unaware of any effort to put together a new public lands omnibus proposal.