Wilderness and Congress
Since the creation of the Wilderness Protection Act 50 years ago, Congress has designated 758 wilderness areas protecting 109,504,348 acres. Nearly 53 percent of those acres are in Alaska. Approximately 14 percent are in California. In spite of both Democrats and Republicans introducing 37 federal public land protection proposals (including new wilderness, parks, monuments and refuges) in the last five years alone, Congress has only passed one new wilderness bill in the last eight years.
In March, the Denver-based Equal Ground campaign (which tracks conservation legislation), published a report called Languishing Lands: Conservation Bills Stalled in Congress. The report illustrates the lack of congressional action even with bills that had broad bipartisan support, indicating that many in this Congress seem to lack the conviction to protect lands for future generations. The report highlights 10 areas as examples of this failure including bills related to federal lands in California, such as Berryessa Snow Mountain and California Desert in California.
Some in Congress frequently complain about the lack of energy production on federal lands, yet, as Equal Ground also points out, 7,618,277 acres are leased to oil and gas corporations while only 2,862,140 are protected public lands. Few people expect this Congress will significantly change their voting record before the 2014 elections. We hope the next session of Congress will see the importance of saving our public lands and wilderness.
Drought Legislation Takes Odd Turn
This winter, as the potential for serious drought became clear, Senator Feinstein introduced a bill to stall efforts by San Juaquin Valley water interests lead by Rep. Valadao (CA 21st district: Central Valley, Fresno south to Bakersfield area) but then changed her tune. Instead, she released a revised drought bill (S.2198—Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014) that has environmentalists throughout California feeling betrayed—with good reason. For starters, she removed $300 million from the bill for conservation and efficiency measures and aid to low-income farmworkers hurt by the drought, admittedly to attract Republican support. If passed as currently written, it could cause catastrophic harm if the expected drought is severe.
Chipping Away at Endangered Species
House Natural Resources Committee Chair Hastings (R-WA) has begun his curtain call. He is not running for re-election, and last year announced he has the Endangered Species Act in his sights. Hastings stated he has a better chance at undermining key components of the ESA by making several small changes, rather than overhauling the bill. Conservative members of the House committee have called for reducing funds for the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries’ Ecological Services offices where the work to determine listing and de-listing is done.
Those same committee members have introduced a volley of bills aimed at increasing government transparency with regard to environmental studies and data. However, accusations and demands for data fall flat at hearings as agencies and scientists testify that most of the requested data is withheld under state regulations or policy, not federal policy. The real goal of the House Republicans is to make it difficult for conservation-minded organizations to sue the government for poor work while leaving the door open for private rights groups, off road vehicle advocates, energy development corporations and hunting groups to sue the government from the opposite perspective.