House chairman to target BLM 'wild lands' policy

This story first appeared in E&E Daily.

The incoming chairman of the House subcommittee on public lands said he plans to fight an Interior Department policy allowing new wilderness protections on public lands.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) -- who last month was named the new chairman of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee -- said one of his top priorities will be grilling Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on whether the Bureau of Land Management has the authority to impose temporary wilderness restrictions on federal lands in the West.

"I don't know anywhere else where an administration has been brazen enough to think they can establish policy without the legislative authority to do so," Bishop said in an interview with E&E Daily. "It does violate, if not the letter of [the Federal Land Policy and Management Act] and [National Environmental Policy Act], it certainly violates the spirit of it."

The new wilderness policy announced last month by Interior drew strong praise from conservation groups that have fought for years to overturn a 2003 settlement between former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah barring BLM from taking stock of wilderness-quality lands in all its resource plans (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2010).

But the policy stirred anger among Western Republicans, the oil and gas industry and motorized recreation advocates who argue wilderness designations stifle economic development and block access to public lands.

Interior's "wild lands" policy, Bishop said, stems from the same agency discussions that produced a memo in early 2010 identifying millions of acres of public lands in the West that qualify for potential national monument designations (E&ENews PM, Feb. 18, 2010).

"Their brainstorming now has become policy, or purported policy," Bishop said. "There will be pushback."


Bishop insisted Interior needs to be more forthcoming on its national monument and wilderness plans.

"We intend specifically to make sure these officials are in front of our committee to explain what they're trying to do and why," he said, adding that he is exploring separate legislative means for curbing the Obama administration's wilderness and monument authorities. "This time when we ask for documents, we want those documents in an orderly fashion, and not after we have everything redacted."

Dave Alberswerth, the Wilderness Society's senior policy adviser on energy issues, downplayed Bishop's charges that Interior was exceeding its authority and noted that wilderness protections have been imposed by BLM under every administration until George W. Bush's.

"The secretary is firmly within not only his statutory rights, but responsibilities, to create and administer policies that protect wilderness characteristics on public lands," Alberswerth said. "Every administration except the last one recognized that responsibility."

But Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for the Idaho-based motorized recreation group BlueRibbon Coalition, said he was happy that Bishop plans to probe Salazar's wilderness plans. Whatever benefit wilderness advocates hope to achieve with the new policy will be erased by new public lands controversies and worsening relationships with rural communities, Hawthorne warned.

"We're trying to figure out what in the world section 603 of FLPMA means to the agency," Hawthorne said. "It seems like they haven't even read it."

Other battles

In addition to oversight into wilderness policy and national monuments, Bishop said his subcommittee also aims to block "bad" legislation from passing the House.

Bishop cited a public lands omnibus bill in the last Congress that codified BLM's National Landscape Conservation System and added new segments to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

"We created parks the Park Service didn't even want in the first place, we created wild and scenic rivers in areas that never met the definition of a wild and scenic river," said Bishop, who was a vocal critic of a failed Democratic push last month to pass another suite of public lands bills.

"It's not going to be the free for all of the last couple of years where stuff was just passed on a whim," Bishop added. "There's not going to be as much legislation, and I don't think that's a bad idea."

Hawthorne said his group was still fatigued from opposing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) omnibus public lands measure in the lame-duck session and said wilderness bills should be evaluated individually.

Bishop also vowed to shed light on whether environmental groups are abusing a federal law that allows groups to be compensated for lawsuits brought against the federal government.

A bipartisan bill introduced last March by Bishop's Congressional Western Caucus would require the Justice Department to file annual reports detailing the number and amounts of payments issued under the little-known Equal Access to Justice Act, as well as provide a searchable online database containing the names of EAJA recipients, the federal agencies sued by those groups, and the names of the administrative law judges overseeing each case (Land Letter, March 4, 2010).

Grijalva pledges 'effective opposition'

The incoming ranking member of the subcommittee said Democrats can throw in the towel on a range of policy initiatives to increase protections of natural, historical and cultural resources on public lands.

But Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the minority members of his committee can enlist the support of conservation groups and the American public to pressure the majority to balance energy development with public lands protections.

"Our role is to be realistic and to understand that many of the things we've tried to promote on the public lands -- whether it is equitable return to taxpayers on [mineral] extraction, whether it is looking at natural resource protections -- I think they are all going to be under assault," Grijalva told E&E Daily. "I think we can be an effective opposition and not merely vote 'no' and not merely wring our hands."

Democrats must ensure public lands policy is driven by science rather than calls for energy independence and "destructive" off-highway vehicle use on public lands, Grijalva said.

"This assault will come from the energy independence crowd," he said, adding that he did not expect to be able to support any legislation that would pass the Natural Resources Committee in the 112th Congress.

"The public lands are going to be the feeder of American energy independence, so let's suspend the rules and just let it happen," Grijalva said, mocking the calls of energy proponents. "I think it is very dangerous."

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