Subverting our Natural Heritage
by Tommy Hough
It's only been a matter of days since Tea Party-led Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, and to no one's surprise, the 114th Congress has picked up where the House portion of the 113th Congress left off.
A procedural rule adopted by the House designed to subvert and derail Social Security by the end of 2016 would work by preventing "routine reallocations" of funds between Social Security's retirement fund and disability program. Even the Associated Press acknowledged the needlessly antagonistic nature of the rule:
"An easy fix was available. Congress could have redirected payroll tax revenue from Social Security's much larger retirement program, as lawmakers have done before."
And when the AP says "as lawmakers have done before," they mean that in the 80-year history of Social Security, no one in Congress had ever deliberately set up the agency to head into insolvency – but the congressional GOP seems to have found a way. Country first. Be sure to remind your grandparents.
Essentially, this is the tip of the iceberg of Tea Party Republicans' intent to burn good government to the ground, and another demonstration of how the Tea Party hasn't found any component of good government they don't want to hold hostage for political gain.
And when it comes to the environment, the House wasted no time in putting forward H.R. 330, a bill that would strip the president of his ability to declare National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906 without congressional approval – which, of course, is the whole point of the Antiquities Act.
President Obama recently used this extraordinary executive conservation power for the 18th time in his presidency, declaring the long-proposed San Gabriel Mountains wilderness expansion and National Recreation Area plan as a National Monument in October.
The ability of President Obama to do anything without having to run the gauntlet of the Tea Party-led Republican Congress, which decided before he was even sworn in to deny him all cooperation as a matter of strategy, makes Republicans' head spin – except the Antiquities Act was signed into law by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, for very much the same reasons Obama is utilizing it today.
More ominously, the Tea Party-led House, now with dangerously capable allies like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in the majority in the Senate, similarly wants to undo the National Wilderness Preservation System, which was created upon the passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964. It's not as though Republicans have been subtle about their intense dislike for the "gold standard" of federal lands conservation.
With that in mind, here are a few samples of the more egregious Wilderness-killing public lands bills House Republicans put forward in the 113th Congress:
H.R. 2834 – Proposed by Congressman Dan Benishek, the "Wilderness Development Act" would open up designated Wilderness areas to development by granting an exception to the 1964 Wilderness Act's prohibition on the use of motorized vehicles and equipment. This would throw open pristine wilderness lands across the U.S. to off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats, chainsaws, and other thrillcraft and motorized equipment. And like H.R. 330's negation of the Antiquities Act, H.R. 2834 would wholly negate a core component of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which leaves wild public lands free of motorized intrusion.
H.R. 4089 – This is the so-called "Sportsmen's Heritage Act," proposed by Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida. Essentially a revised version of H.R. 2834, which passed the House in April 2014, H.R. 4089 is an attack on the nation's wild areas and wilderness disguised as a bill to create more hunting and fishing opportunities. Except, there aren't restrictions on hunting or fishing in wilderness areas other than what local managing agencies allow. In reality, this bill would rollback environmental protections and damage lands valued by conservationists and sportsmen specifically for their abundant wildlife and wild character.
Like H.R. 2834, H.R. 4089 would also overturn decades of congressional protections for wilderness areas and change the Wilderness Act to allow widespread motorized access, as well as permit new logging, mining and fossil fuel extraction. In other words, it is intended to rid our nation of the gold standard for conservation on federal public lands.
The "Sportsmen's Heritage Act" would also exempt important land management decisions from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The bill also includes language enabling management agencies to close areas to hunting and fishing in favor of energy development, without any overt notice to the public. So if you want to know the Tea Party's real commitments to "sportsmen's heritage," they support it – unless Big Oil, King Coal, or fracking interests want it more.
H.R. 1126 – First introduced in 2011 by Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the "Disposal of Federal Lands Act" would force the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to sell off "excess" public lands to the highest bidder. And what is "excess" public land? No definition for that. The Wilderness Society estimates this would result in the sale of 3.3 million acres that would be used for logging, mining, and other forms of resource extraction. In other words, this is about removing lands from public oversight so private industry can run roughshod.
H.R. 2588 – The "American Land Sales Act," sponsored by Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), would force the BLM and Forest Service to sell eight percent of their respective federal land to the highest bidder this year and next year. In 2015 alone, the two agencies would've been forced to sell off nearly 36 million acres of forest and other federal public land to corporate interests.
H.R. 2852 – The "Land Division Act," sponsored by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), would force the BLM and Forest Service to give away, free of charge, five percent of their lands to each western state. This would leave 30 million acres in the west vulnerable to resource extraction and development.
There's absolutely no reason to think versions of these bills won't continue to come back in worse form in the 114th Congress. While it's unlikely President Obama would sign any of these into law on face value, they could be added to must-pass legislation like the debt ceiling. And it's worth remembering Barack Obama will no longer be president in two years, in which case the question becomes, "which party is going to be a better steward of protected places?"
If you have to think about that answer, you're overthinking the question.
What can you do about these and other destructive pieces of legislation designed to rollback generations of function, popular, and appropriate conservation legislation? Write your district's congressional representative, and write our tremendous California U.S. senators: Barbra Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
Boxer helped shepherd the promotion of Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County to National Park status in 2012, and Feinstein was instrumental in the passage of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which also created Mojave National Preserve. Tell them to STAND FAST against attempts to undo the 1906 Antiquities Act, the 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1968 Wild and Scenic River Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and so on. Also let them know you want Congress to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund immediately.
Similarly, let President Obama you know you appreciate his leadership and support his comments in the State of the Union speech on the sanctity of public lands – but will not accept rollbacks of conservation and environmental law. If Congress fails in their duty to protect America's natural heritage, the president is our last line of defense.
Tommy Hough is president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.
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