UPDATED, 6 pm, March 30. President Barack Obama signed the public lands bill today. George Cooper, President and CEO of the Theordore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, attended the White House signing ceremony and invoked the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt in assessing the president’s actions. “Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.’ With today’s events, Roosevelt’s words take on a new and deeper meaning. Ratification of this historic measure represents an important victory for sportsmen, as well as for our natural resources and activities that rely on our nation’s public lands.”
After years of compromise, delay, failed votes, parliamentary games, all frequently sprinkled with vitriol from detractors, but countered with the hard work by many thousands of supporters, Congress has, finally, passed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill. The 1,300-page behemoth is actually a compilation of around 170 pieces of legislation, including Idaho’s first wilderness in 29 years, protection for the Wyoming Range, and wilderness and wild river designations in nine states, not including Montana.
The Senate passed the massive bill, again (click here to read about it), last week. Yesterday, the House voted 285-140 to pass the same bill. Since the House passed an exact copy of the Senate-passed bill, it won’t be stalled in a conference committee and subject to re-votes. Instead, it goes directly to the White House where everybody involved expects President Obama to sign it, probably next week.
“This is a very rewarding day,” Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) told NewWest.Net in a phone interview. “I’m taking a deep breath and sending out thank you notes to everybody involved.”
Although glad to see the massive piece of legislation finally passed, Crapo was mainly celebrating one of his key projects, the codification of the Owyhee Initiative, a 20-year collaborative effort resulting in the designation of the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness (517,000 acres in six units) and 316 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in southern Idaho.
“This has been an eight-year project,” Crapo said. “I have to give the kudos to the working group. They developed the relationships necessary to get this bill passed It shows what collaboration can really do. It also shows what we could do on a national scale to deal with these contentious land management issues we face all across the country.”
And Idaho’s senior senator doesn’t plan to stop with one win. He intends to use the same process for other Idaho projects with the next likely to be in the Clearwater Basin in northern Idaho. “It’s a tremendously successful model. We’re trying to decide these contentious issues around a table instead of in front of a judge.”
In the Owyhee Initiative–and with many other bills in the public lands legislation–normally opposed stakeholders sat down and through the give-and-take process decided what should be in a bill and then they present it to their delegation for introduction. Politicians welcome this approach because it minimizes controversy.
Implementing the bill is “the next big step,” Crapo explained. Some parts, like the wilderness and wild river designations, are effective immediately, but other parts will take some time, “but hopefully not long.”
At the same moment Senator Crapo was making calls to the media yesterday afternoon, one of the main architects of the Owyhee Initiative, Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) was cracking a bottle of champagne with his co-workers in his Boise office.
“We’re very excited to be part of an extraordinary collaborative effort that led to Idaho’s first wilderness in 29 years,” an elated Johnson told NewWest.Net. “That was the longest dry spell for any state in the region. Idaho and Montana have always been vying for the worst.”
(Guess we know which state owns that dubious designation now, don’t we?)
“It was not just the ICL,” Johnson was quick to emphasize. “This was truly was a collaborative process. We’ve been working on this since the late 80s. It’s one thing to talk about these things for years and years; it’s quite another thing to see it cross the finish line.””
Collaboration is a modern buzzword for compromise, and everybody had to “make hard choices,” he explained. Some acreage had to be compromised, referring mainly to 199,500 acres of wilderness study areas on Bureau of Land Management land that went to “multiple use management,” but “the finest of the fine” was protected,” he assured, noting that “every acre is not created equal.”
Idaho’s last wilderness success was the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, which was designated in 1980, the year Senator Frank Church left the U.S. Senate.
Idaho’s new Democratic Congressmen Walt Minnick not only voted for the public lands bill and spoke in favor of it on the House floor. “I speak in favor of this bill which protects 517,000 stunning unspoiled acres of my home state.”
“I applaud Senator Crapo for having the patience and perseverance to develop the compromises he has made with numerous ranchers, county officials, sportsman groups and conservation groups to make the Owyhee Initiative possible,” said Idaho’s other congressman, Mike Simpson (R-ID). “The years of effort put into creating this legislation are a testament to just how special these lands are.”
Although hardly unanimous consent, bipartisanship reared its beautiful head and helped pass the bill. For instance, conservative Republican senators, all four of them, from Idaho and Wyoming, joined the Democratic majority, including Montana’s two senators, in passing it 77-20 in the Senate. The House vote, 285-140, was more than a two-thirds majority, even though Wyoming’s Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and Montana’s Congressman Dennis Rehberg, both Republicans, voted against the bill. Of the 140 negative votes, 136 were Republicans, but 39 Republican representatives voted for the bill. For more on the hope for bipartisanship, read Ray Ring’s commentary on High Country News.
The Owyhee Initiative wasn’t the only the major victory for conservationists in the Rocky Mountain West. Of equal significance, perhaps, was the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which protects 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range in western Wyoming from the threat of rampant fossil fuel development prevalent elsewhere in the Cowboy State.
Another interesting addition to the bill came from Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), which provides funds to compensate livestock producers for losses from wolves and sets up a five-year program to develop non-lethal programs to prevent depredation.
Along with these three issues of special note here in the New West, the omnibus bill designates more than 2 million acres of wilderness and establishes three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails. It also enlarges the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establishes ten new national heritage areas. It authorizes numerous land exchanges and conveyances to help local communities address water resource and supply issues and launch programs to study the effects of climate change on natural resources. And mcuh more. Click here if you’ve decided to set aside a couple of days to read the whole thing.
In the political games played to get a second vote after the House failed to get a super-majority and essentially killed the bill last week, the Senate took a House-passed bill, H.R. 146, a bill to protect Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields and inserted the entire public lands bill so senators could vote on it again and send it to the House again for a simple-majority vote. Interestingly, in the floor debate, the sponsor of the non-controversial, three-page battlefield bill, Rush Holt (D-NJ), said “I’m proud to have my bill grow to 1,300 pages and include the public lands bill, but my original language to preserve the battlefields has vanished,” and asked House leadership to re-insert it.
If you want more on this historic event, check out the following snippets from the dozen or so press releases I received yesterday in the minutes following the mid-day vote. Suffice to say, as you can see, conservationists are celebrating nationwide.
“Not since the National Park System was created in 1916 has a single action of Congress had a greater positive impact on our ability to enjoy, take pride in and benefit from America’s incredible trails and natural resources,” said Gregory Miller, American Hiking Society president. “Americans should give thanks that Congress has answered our needs with such leadership.”
“What makes this measure so noteworthy,” said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited, “is that hunters and anglers were so vocal and vital in advocating for the bill’s passage.”
“This landmark legislation will enable citizens’ continued enjoyment of public-lands sporting activities by safeguarding crucial fish and wildlife habitat and upholding access to sportsmen’s traditional mountains, plains and waters,” said Tom Franklin of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Today’s House vote has enormous positive implications for the future of hunting and fishing in America. Our nation’s sportsmen have reason to celebrate.”
“Passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act verifies that protecting wildlife and wild places in addition to healthy rural mountain economies is a high priority for Congress.” said John Gans of the National Outdoor Leadership School.
Footnote: To learn more about how the landmark legislation came to be, click here for an earlier NewWest.Net> article.