Wednesday, June 13, 2012

House GOP eyes omnibus package including border bill, Tongass land deal

E&E Daily
June 13, 2012
by Phil Taylor

The House as early as next week could begin debate on a package of more than a dozen lands bills sure to spark heated debate over issues ranging from national security to tribal economic development, endangered species protections and access to federal beaches, among other issues.

The House Rules Committee yesterdayannounced it is accepting amendments to a public lands omnibus that includes controversial proposals to lift environmental protections along the Mexican and Canadian borders, to allow conveyance of prime timberlands in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and to overturn a National Park Service plan restricting motorized access on a North Carolina seashore.

The panel said it could meet next week to pass a rule governing debate on amendments.

The package includes Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Chairman Rob Bishop's (R-Utah)H.R. 1505, which would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from dozens of conservation laws along a 100-mile swath of the nation's borders.

It also includes Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska)H.R. 1408, which would allow a southeast Alaska native corporation to acquire lands in the Tongass from outside the areas it was allowed to select in a 1971 settlement.

The package also containsH.R. 4094, a bipartisan measure that seeks to roll back a Park Service plan to restrict beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore to protect endangered piping plovers and sea turtles (Greenwire, June 7).

Also included is Rep. Raul Labrador's (R-Idaho)H.R. 4234, which would streamline permitting for ranchers who graze cattle on public lands.

Environmental groups have come out strongly against most of the bills in the package, particularly Bishop's, which opponents claim is overly broad, and Young's, which is criticized for allowing clear-cut logging of old-growth trees.

"It's an equal opportunity offender, from our perspective, in the expanse of what they're trying to propose," said Bobby McEnaney, a senior public lands analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It looks like Republicans are trying to hit the Earth with an asteroid."

Speaking in opposition to H.R. 4094, by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Kristin Brengel, legislative director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said, "Cape Hatteras National Seashore has more people visiting the beaches and more nesting shore birds and turtles." She added, "The National Park Service plan was put in place after extensive scientific review and four years of input from park visitors, fisherman, local government officials and the public."

Ben Lamb, a board member for the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association in Montana, said Bishop's bill could compromise access to the backcountry along hundreds of miles of the state's Canadian border. "There are certainly a lot of hunters who are very concerned about this legislation," he said.

Cindy Shogan, executive director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said Young's bill is "out of touch with reality."

"Senator [Lisa] Murkowski [D-Alaska] listened to her constituents and made changes based on their input, while Representative Young's bill includes no conservation lands and has increased the acreage to be logged and is the most detrimental bill yet for the small communities in southeast Alaska," she said. "This bill will be [dead on arrival] on the Senate side."

Sponsors of the bills say legislation is needed to curb a regulatory overreach that has closed businesses, has stifled national security and threatens jobs for those who make a living off public lands.

"If you do nothing, you're still turning over enormous swaths of land to the drug cartels that don't care about the Endangered Species Act, that don't care about wilderness designations," Bishop said last month about H.R. 1505, which he said would bolster environmental protections along the border.

McEnaney said the package's timing came somewhat as a surprise, given that House leaders have already indicated they intend to take up legislation next week that would ease environmental regulations and significantly expand the production of oil and gas on public lands (Greenwire, May 25).

Given the packed agenda, the public lands package could easily be pushed to the following week.

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