October 31, 2008

Grijalva: Bush policies bad for federal public lands

Tucson Region

By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)

The Bush administration mounted a "concerted strategy" to reduce protections for federal public lands and to open them to all types of industry, a Tucson congressman says in a new report.

The report lists more than 40 actions by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management that Rep. Raúl Grijalva says harmed public lands.

They often allowed mining, timber and other private industry to exploit resources at the environment's expense, he claims.

Grijalva, a Democrat, is a congressional leader on public lands issues, as he chairs the National Parks, Forest and Public Lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

However, Bush administration officials and agency managers have generally defended their actions, calling them efforts to restore balance to public lands policy after eight years of Clinton administration policies that more commonly sided with environmentalists. Federal officials have also cited budget pressures in explaining some of the decisions.

Here are capsule accounts of some of the actions criticized in Grijalva's report, their effects on Arizona, and the federal agencies' responses:

Border fence
Grijalva's report criticized the Department of Homeland Security for repeatedly invoking a 2005 federal law allowing it to waive environmental laws — such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act — to build a 670-mile border fence.

The congressman is co-sponsoring a bill to rescind provisions of that law. Grijalva and environmental groups say the fence blocks wildlife movements and fragments habitat crucial for the survival of dozens of imperiled species, including jaguars, wolves and pronghorn antelope.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff said the fence, now about half-finished, is needed to block the illegal entry of terrorists, to impede drug smuggling, human smuggling and gang activity, and to counteract the environmental effects of illegal immigration.

Chertoff has used the law four times to waive dozens of environmental laws and regulations to build nearly 500 miles of fence, including segments along more than 200 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico.

Grand Canyon uranium mining
Grijalva has pushed through a measure to prevent uranium mining on 1 million acres adjoining Grand Canyon National Park for a year. But Interior Department officials have refused to withdraw the area from mining, and they are fighting to repeal underlying regulations.

Two potential uranium-mining exploration sites are being drilled on BLM land north of the national park. Environmental groups are suing to force the Interior Department to withdraw those lands, on the grounds that the radioactivity from the uranium could leak into the groundwater or the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.

There's a long history of uranium mining north of the Canyon, and it is "very responsible mining," counters Scott Florence, director of BLM's Arizona Strip office. It's all underground, with "a very small footprint" on the surface, Florence says. "They are not a big open-pit mine."

Loaded-gun parks
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has proposed a regulation allowing visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to carry loaded, concealed weapons if they have proper permits. Today, visitors can pack only unloaded guns. The new rules would affect Arizona and other states that already allow concealed weapons in state parks.

Grijalva says the new rule would cause widespread confusion among gun owners because many national parks are located in two or more states with different gun rules.

Interior says it wants to respect states' ability to determine who may possess firearms within their boundaries. The National Rifle Association says park visitors should be allowed to carry guns for self-defense.

Seven retired National Park Service directors opposed the proposal, telling Kempthorne it would impair park rangers' ability to protect people and natural resources.

Off-road vehicles
Grijalva says environmentally harmful off-road vehicle use is out of control and growing rapidly on public lands. The vehicles have damaged cultural sites, disturbed wildlife habitat and destroyed private property, Grijalva says.

"Irresponsible off-roading has become such a menace that it is now the single greatest threat to American landscapes," a retired Forest Service official, Jack Gregory, testified at a congressional hearing in April.

A Tucson BLM official says the agency is trying to keep off-road vehicles under control, using trained volunteers on motorcycles and ATVs to go on patrol, pick up trash and talk to off-roaders about proper use.

"As more people are out on public lands, our challenges will always be there," said Brian Bellew, BLM's Tucson manager. "But we are coming up with much better means of dealing with those resource conflicts."

Air quality in national parks
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed changing air quality regulations to make it less likely that emissions from new power plants near national parks would be in violation.

Grijalva says the regulation, still pending, would let companies seeking to build plants near national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park, circumvent congressionally established pollution limits.

EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the rule is part of an agency program to prevent air quality degradation in national parks and would not change the level of emissions allowed in clean-air areas.

Roadless rule
Throughout President Bush's tenure, federal officials have sought to overturn a last-minute rule instituted by then-President Bill Clinton that would ban logging, road building and development on 58 million acres of national forests and grasslands. That includes 420,000 Coronado National Forest acres in Southern Arizona.

In 2005, the Forest Service approved a new rule allowing state governments to petition federal officials to exempt these forest lands in their states from wilderness designation.

There have been conflicting lower-court rulings on whether the decision failed to consider environmental impacts. The decisions are under appeal.