Major package of wilderness, parks and energy bills hitches ride on defense authorization

Updated at 9:28 a.m. EST.

In a major bipartisan breakthrough, House and Senate lawmakers last night successfully attached a slew of public lands and energy bills to the defense authorization bill that Congress hopes to pass in the coming week.

If passed, the dozens of bills would represent -- by far -- the largest public lands package advanced by Congress since the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act.

The package, negotiated by leaders on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and House Natural Resources committees and backed by leaders on the Armed Service panels in both chambers, represents a major compromise between conservation and development interests.

It would designate nearly 250,000 acres of new wilderness in a handful of Western states while preserving hundreds of thousands of additional acres from drilling and mining in states, including Montana and Colorado.


It would also allow the Bureau of Land Management to expedite oil and gas and grazing permits, promote a copper mine in Arizona and convey federal timberlands to an Alaska Native-owned corporation in the Tongass National Forest -- all major Republican priorities.

In total, there appear to be roughly 70 provisions in the natural resources title of the 1,648-page National Defense Authorization Act, which was crafted by members of the House and Senate Armed Services panels.

The House Rules Committee is set to consider the bill this afternoon at 3 p.m. in H-313 of the Capitol, and the lower chamber could pass the measure by week's end. In a joint statement yesterday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the House plans to pass NDAA without change. They urged their Senate colleagues to also pass the bill without amendments.

The lands provisions "have been under consideration for several years and there is strong support in both Houses for including them in our bill," they said.

ENR and Natural Resources committee aides had been negotiating the lands package for at least the past month, sources said. A deal was reportedly struck within the past week.

But its inclusion in NDAA -- a must-pass piece of legislation -- appeared in jeopardy earlier this week after objections were raised by some Republicans. Levin was reportedly worried that including the lands measures could sink NDAA, which Congress has successfully passed annually for more than the five consecutive decades.

It wasn't until after yesterday's Senate caucus lunches that NDAA leaders agreed to include the resources title, one lobbyist said.

It remains to be seen whether senators who have historically opposed omnibus parks packages -- including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- will oppose the package once it reaches the Senate floor.

It's also unclear whether the measure will garner opposition from any major environmental groups.

Like the 2009 omnibus bill -- which contained a controversial bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to authorize a road through an Alaska wilderness area -- the package attached to NDAA contains some potential poison pills for green groups.

They include a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to swap lands in Arizona to build a copper mine and a bill by Murkowski to convey tens of thousands of acres of the Tongass National Forest to Juneau, Alaska-based Sealaska Corp., allowing the clearcutting of some old-growth trees. The package also appears to have a proposal by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to expedite grazing permits on public lands.

Some environmental activists yesterday were girding to oppose the package if it included those three provisions.

It was not immediately clear last night whether, or how, any of the lands provisions have been tweaked from the versions that have passed committees in recent months.

Aides on the respective committees and major stakeholders in the conservation world and energy industry could not be reached last night.

Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society, said the bill is a "blockbuster."

"This bill would protect some spectacular landscapes across the western United States," he said. "Local citizens have been working to protect them for many years. We are happy to see these areas coming ever so close to being permanently protected."

Indeed, it has been nearly six years since a major conservation package has passed Congress. The only significant conservation bill to pass in that time was S. 23, in March, by Levin, which protected about 30,000 acres at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along the northwest coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

The drought led to pent-up demand for many members, some of whose bills had passed committees in both chambers and carried strong bipartisan support.

Such bills that made the NDAA cut would designate about 75,000 acres of wilderness in western and northern Nevada while promoting a copper mine; add more than 20,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state; and designate some 38,000 acres of wilderness in southwest Colorado while boosting access for snowmobiles and other forms of recreation.

Also included was a bill by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) to designate the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo wilderness in Taos County, N.M.

"We are closer than ever to making historic gains in protecting some of New Mexico's most treasured landscapes," Heinrich said yesterday in a statement. "From designating the Columbine-Hondo as wilderness, increasing public access to the Valles Caldera, and establishing the Manhattan National Historical Park, to streamlining the oil and gas drilling permit process, these provisions will have a significant impact on growing our economy."

Mining, coal bills

One of the most controversial bills in the package would authorize a land swap near Superior, Ariz., to facilitate development of Rio Tinto PLC's Resolution Copper project.

The legislation, championed by Arizona's Republican lawmakers, plus Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, would give Resolution Copper -- a Rio Tinto venture with BHP Billiton Ltd. -- more than 2,000 acres of federal land in return for more than 5,000 acres of company land.

Conservation advocates and American Indian groups, particularly the San Carlos Apache Tribe, have for years been trying to block the swap, saying the mine would damage natural resources and culturally sensitive areas. A site called Apache Leap in the Tonto National Forest has been of particular concern.

As a concession to critics, the NDAA provision includes added scrutiny and National Environmental Policy Act review prior to the swap, which would also be used for mine permitting. The latest version of the measure would also ban mining under Apache Leap and create a conservation area there.

But the moves will likely not quell opposition. Even though the package appears headed for passage, land swap opponent and Arizona mining watchdog Roger Featherstone said, "There's a lot that can be done." He blasted the "cynicism of putting a bill like this in a defense bill" and called it a potential "poison pill."

Mining boosters cheered what they called a compromise. "Including such a package in the NDAA is well within the purview of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, as land exchanges have been a fixture in NDAA's for at least 25 years, across both Republican and Democratic presidencies," wrote Dan McGroarty, head of the group American Resources Policy Network.

Recent defense bills have generally included measures related to the supply of rare earth elements or a broader suite of so-called critical minerals important to national defense or economic needs. While not in the bill itself, an explanatory statement accompanying the legislation asks the Government Accountability Office to review federal efforts at securing supplies.

Another land deal in the package would make way for the city of Yerington, Nev., to buy and develop BLM property around Nevada Copper Corp.'s Pumpkin Hollow copper deposit. The idea is for the city to move forward in partnership with Nevada Copper, according to sponsor Rep. Steve Horsford (D-Nev.) and other members of the state's delegation.

The Yerington bill was one of several proposals in a broader Nevada lands package sponsored by Rep. Mark Amodei (R), H.R. 5205, that passed the House earlier this year and are now included in the NDAA.

A third mining-related land scheme in the package is meant to rectify a century-old surveying error by giving the Northern Cheyenne Tribe about 5,000 acres of underground coal reserves within the reservation. The current owner, Great Northern Properties LP, would get access to coal reserves outside tribal land as compensation.

The legislation, however, would prevent the company from strip mining the land unless it ensures landowner consent.


The measure also includes several compromises relating to the Pentagon's controversial efforts to tap advanced biofuels.

After major battles over biofuels spending during the 2012 defense authorization process, lawmakers reached a compromise to codify the Pentagon's own promise not to purchase operational quantities of biofuels unless they are cost-competitive with traditional fuels. This year's measure would add a twist on that approach, requiring not simply that the purchase price of drop-in fuels be cost-competitive, but that the overall cost of purchasing and delivering the fuels be competitive.

It's unclear what this "fully-burdened cost" of alternative fuels would mean in practice. The Pentagon signed contracts this fall to produce 100 million gallons per year of drop-in biofuels for $3.45 a gallon -- roughly the price of conventional military fuels (Greenwire, Sept. 19). But the military's logistics system for moving fuel around the world was built with conventional fuels in mind, so the logistics costs of moving alternative fuels to forces around the world could be higher.

Also included in the measure is a provision that would require the Pentagon to send Congress a business case analysis before signing a contract related to planning or building a biofuel refinery. The House bill included a provision that would have required the Defense secretary to receive congressional approval before entering into such a contract.

The measure also includes a provision from the Senate bill aimed at incentivizing the development of alternative duel-fueled vehicles.

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