Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this morning said she has stopped a controversial program designed to recognize conservation of valuable watersheds, a move aimed at appeasing Republican critics ahead of a House hearing on the program this afternoon (E&E Daily, July 15).
Jewell this morning told the Natural Resources Committee she has ordered a "pause" on the National Blueways program while she briefs herself on the issues.
No new blueway designation will occur "until we figure out the future of the program," Jewell said.
The order, signed in early 2012 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, intended to draw national attention to watersheds "conserved through diverse stakeholder partnerships."
"It's intended to be a bottoms-up community focus to bring recognition to its rivers," Jewell said, noting that it does not envision any new restrictions. But she said she was "responding to community demands" in ordering the pause.
Jewell's statement came minutes after committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) reiterated Republican concerns that the program could infringe on private property rights and state management of water.
"The national blueways secretarial order creates new unilateral authority to designate entire watershed as national blueways and impose severe water and land use restrictions," Hastings said in his opening statement. "The committee has witnessed an alarming pattern of decisions being made either unilaterally without proper input from the people and communities directly impacted."
The blueways order explicitly states that it is not intended to affect the use of private property or exercise any new regulatory authority.
Interior agencies are encouraged to align their programs "to protect, restore, and enhance the natural, cultural, and/or recreational resources" of blueways, ensuring that the work is complementary to the goals of state, local and tribal governments.
But the program raised the ire of Republicans after some local officials and stakeholders in states including Wyoming said they were unaware of proposals to designate local waterways.
Republicans on the committee have also not hidden their dissatisfaction that the program is led by Rebecca Wodder, the former CEO of American Rivers, who was previously nominated to become Interior assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
That nomination was later withdrawn amid Republican opposition to her advocacy on hydraulic fracturing, mountaintop coal removal and other issues.
Transparency was a prevailing theme at this morning's hearing, with Republican members repeatedly pressing Jewell to make Interior more cooperative in responding to the committee's oversight requests.
"In the past two and a half years, the department has refused to cooperate with the committee's legitimate oversight efforts, refused to provide documents, refused to comply with the committee's subpoenas, refused to answer questions, and refused to make witnesses available to testify or to answer questions by committee staff," Hastings said. "These actions are made worse by the fact that the Department still does not have a permanent inspector general -- a person needed to act as an independent watchdog."
Jewell encouraged committee leaders to contact her directly to see whether resolutions could be reached before tedious document requests are made. She said the agency has provided more than 10,000 pages of documents but that some of them must be redacted to protect the identities of certain individuals.
In his opening statement, Hastings also criticized the Obama administration for its decision to limit offshore oil and gas leasing to the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, for leasing too few acres on public lands, and for proposing "duplicative rules" for the technique of hydraulic fracturing.
He took particular aim at Interior's administration of the Endangered Species Act, including settlements with environmental groups.
"Good science or deadlines?" Hastings asked, referring to the sweeping settlements Interior signed with environmental groups in 2011 that required it to issue listing decisions on hundreds of species over the next five years.
Those settlements required Interior to issue final listing decisions on candidate species, which federal scientists have already determined warrant protections under ESA.
"We're bound by the laws, and the laws talk about using the best available science," Jewell said, noting that the settlements bought the agency time to pursue habitat conservation programs with states before issuing decisions on some species.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who acted as ranking member a day after former ranking member Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was sworn in to the Senate, urged Jewell to support the transition to alternative energy and to recognize the threats of climate change, ocean acidification and record wildfires.
He said he looked forward to Jewell's thoughts on Democratic proposals to force oil and gas companies to use the tens of millions of acres of public lands and waters they have under lease before acquiring more lands.
Jewell did not directly address the issue, but the Obama administration in the past has proposed such a program in its budget requests.