Democratic leaders are opting to bring a sweeping public lands package to the House floor in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.
Sandwiched for consideration between a massive COVID-19 stimulus bill and an aspirational government ethics overhaul, the "Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act" represents an early chance for Democrats to clear the decks of several conservation measures.
Some of the bills in the package were passed by the Democratic-controlled House in the previous Congress but languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Other bills might not have stood a chance of advancing in the Senate under previous GOP control, let alone be signed into law by a Republican president.
The timing of the lands package coincides with a larger campaign from congressional Democrats to align their own green agenda with that being pursued by the White House. Many of the bills contained in this package would, for instance, help President Biden achieve an ambitious goal of conserving 30% of all U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
It could also be a vehicle for Republicans to make mischief, presenting itself as one of the earliest opportunities of the new Congress for GOP lawmakers to force votes on amendments that take aim at the Biden administration’s aggressive actions to curb fossil fuels, which have included a freeze on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Along with designating about 1.49 million acres of public land as wilderness and incorporating more than 1,000 river miles into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the lands package also would withdraw more than 1.2 million acres of public land from new oil and gas and mining claims.
Democrats will have to decide how best to respond to a dynamic that is quickly becoming a political liability for some of their moderate members in swing districts reliant on fossil fuel-producing industries for local jobs and public education funding.
The hope, however, is that the House passes this legislation with at least some Republican support, in turn allowing the Senate to advance pieces of the package in other related legislative vehicles in enough time to get something signed into law before the end of 2022.
Colorado, California in the spotlight
Among the marquee bills in the "Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act" is the "Colorado Wilderness Act," which the measure’s champion, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), has said is the largest wilderness protection package to be considered by Congress in more than a decade. The bill would permanently protect more than 660,000 acres of wilderness in the Centennial State.
It passed the House last year, along party lines, as part of a package of five other land protection bills affecting California and Washington state under the more succinct "Protecting America’s Wilderness Act."
Republicans argued at the time that the bill would do too much to restrict private land rights and was being foisted on residents without local buy-in.
Another Colorado-centric bill included in the new expanded lands package, the "Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act," would give the state 73,000 acres in new designated wilderness and around 80,000 acres as new recreation and conservation management areas.
Colorado Democrats and conservationist allies are now optimistic about the bill’s chances of being signed into law after falling short in the previous Congress, when the Trump administration issued a veto threat and then-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), facing an ultimately doomed reelection fight in 2020, was able to keep the legislation from advancing in his chamber.
Critics remain on Capitol Hill, however, who are unhappy with the provision of the "CORE Act" that would prohibit new oil and gas development on Colorado’s Thompson Divide, which has long been at the center of a contentious debate over extraction.
Lawmakers who are especially sensitive to efforts to scale back oil and gas extraction opportunities could take issue with the "Central Coast Heritage Protection Act," which would protect areas in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument from oil and gas drilling, as well as any construction, including new roads.
This bill, which passed the House last year and is sponsored by California Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal, would also designate two new scenic areas, Condor Ridge and Black Mountain, as well as a trail in the Los Padres National Forest.
Mining controversies will also take center stage when the public lands bill hits the floor next week.
Part of the expanded lands package is House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva’s bill to permanently ban new mining claims on federal lands around the Grand Canyon — a long-sought goal of the Arizona Democrat.
In 2012, the Obama administration withdrew more than 1 million acres from mining around the national park. The 20-year prohibition on staking mining claims came after an uptick in interest in Arizona uranium as prices for the nuclear fuel rose in the late 2000s.
When President Trump created a working group to review the United States’ reliance on foreign uranium suppliers, conservationists feared it would result in a reversal of the Grand Canyon area mineral withdrawal (Energywire, July 15, 2019).
The group recommended expanding access to uranium deposits on federal lands, but Trump never scrapped the Grand Canyon area mining moratorium.
For years Grijalva has been dead set on making the ban permanent. He introduced a stand-alone version of the bill earlier this week with the support of 15 Democratic co-sponsors and the endorsement of major conservation groups and Native American tribes.
"The people of this state, and this country, should never again be subjected to special interest demands that we open the land around one of the wonders of the world to more pollution and exploitation," Grijalva said in a statement yesterday.
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said he was disappointed to see Grijalva introduce "anti-mining legislation amidst the Biden Administration’s attack on American energy."
In a statement to E&E News, Newhouse continued, "By prohibiting the safe and effective mining of uranium and other critical minerals in Arizona, he is ensuring that America becomes even more dependent on foreign regimes like Russia and Kazakhstan."
About 33% of the 48 million pounds of uranium purchased by U.S. nuclear power reactors came from those countries in 2019. Australia and Canada were the sources of 39% of the total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Six U.S. facilities produced 170,000 pounds of uranium that year, mostly at operations in Wyoming and Nebraska.
Reporter Jeremy P. Jacobs contributed.