PUBLIC LANDS:

In rare burst of productivity, Senate passes more than a dozen wilderness, river, energy bills

With the words "without objection," the Senate last night took its first major step of the 113th Congress to pass public lands bills, sending a total of 14 measures from Democrats and Republicans to the House.

By unanimous consent, the Senate quietly passed more than a dozen bills to designate wilderness in three states, protect new wild and scenic rivers and to accelerate drilling permits in the oil-rich Bakken Shale, among other provisions.

"See, Mr. President, we can do some things," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said just before 8 p.m. on the Senate floor. "We just passed some bills."

It was a significant victory for wilderness advocates who have long complained that the 112th Congress was the first since the 1960s not to designate any new acres of wilderness or conserve any additional acres of public lands.

It was a also a victory for energy proponents including Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose bills to accelerate Bakken Shale drilling and to permit a natural gas pipeline and hydropower development in Alaska also passed.

The bills' passage en bloc could build bipartisan momentum for other public lands bills that have lingered in Congress for years.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has reported dozens of additional wilderness, parks, forestry, energy and lands bills to the Senate floor over the past few months. Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Murkowski, the ranking member, have told colleagues they plan to assemble lands packages on a regular basis, breaking the partisanship that snarled the panel for most of last Congress.

"I commend Senator Murkowski and the rest of my colleagues on the committee for proving that sensible bills with bipartisan support can thread the needle and pass the U.S. Senate," Wyden said last night in a statement. "The bills passed today will promote recreation, speed up development of renewable power and protect some of our country's most pristine areas."

Notably, the chamber was able to pass bills designating more than 80,000 acres of wilderness in Michigan, Oregon and Washington state without objection from certain Republicans who have drawn a hard line against placing new restrictions on federal lands.

Wilderness, considered by some as the gold standard of public lands protection, bars energy development, roads or motorized access.

"It certainly did take some behind-the-scenes work and a careful mix of R and D bills," said Alan Rowsome, a budget expert for the Wilderness Society. "But since all of the these bills passed committee without opposition, it's not unprecedented to do it this way."

Bills that passed included S. 23, a bill by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to designate roughly 30,000 acres of wilderness at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which features stunning sand dunes and islands along Lake Michigan.

That bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in the waning hours of the last Congress but was not taken up in the House, though it is sponsored there by eight Michigan Republicans.

The Senate also passed S. 352 by Wyden, which would designate more than 30,000 acres of wilderness in old-growth forests in Oregon's Coast Range that were remote and rugged enough to have largely escaped logging.

The chamber also passed S. 112, by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), which would add more than 20,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes wilderness area and add 10 miles of the Pratt River and nearly 30 miles of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The Senate also passed Hoeven's S. 244, which would expand an oil and gas permit streamlining program at the Bureau of Land Management from the agency's field office in Miles City, Mont., to the Dakotas, extending it to the prolific Bakken Shale.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report doubled the estimated recoverable oil in the region to 7.4 billion barrels and tripled the estimated natural gas, but the lion's share of development has occurred on private lands where permitting is significantly faster (Greenwire, April 30).

A companion bill, H.R. 767 by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), passed the House last month, meaning it is likely soon on its way to the president's desk (E&E Daily, May 16).

Other bills would expand the boundaries of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota and convey federal lands in Mississippi for a recreation complex.

It's unclear which of the bills the House may take up. The lower chamber failed to pass all but one conservation bill last Congress, focusing instead on several measures to jump-start domestic energy production.

The bills that passed the Senate also included:

  • S. 25, by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the "South Utah Valley Electric Conveyance Act."
  • S. 26, by Hatch, the "Bonneville Unit Clean Hydropower Facilitation Act."
  • S. 130, by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the "Powell Shooting Range Land Conveyance Act."
  • S. 157, by Murkowski, the "Denali National Park Improvement Act."
  • S. 230, by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), to authorize the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation to establish a commemorative work in the District of Columbia and its environs.
  • S. 276, by Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), to reinstate and extend the deadline for commencement of construction of a hydroelectric project involving the American Falls Reservoir.
  • S. 304, by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the "Natchez Trace Parkway Land Conveyance Act of 2013."
  • S. 383, by Murray, to amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to designate a segment of Illabot Creek in Skagit County, Wash., as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
  • S. 393, by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), the "White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic River Expansion Act of 2013."
  • S. 459, by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the "Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Boundary Modification Act."