January 15, 2009

Senate passes sweeping public lands package

Sally Schuff

In one of its first votes of the new Congress, the Senate passed a major public land omnibus bill 73-21 on Jan. 15. The bill, which included delineated new wilderness areas and scenic rivers in several states, passed with bipartisan approval despite a filibuster attempt by Oklahoma's Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican.

The bill was applauded by environmental groups and coalitions within states that had worked out compromises on some of the controversial land issues. However, in December it was opposed as a "land grab" by the unlikely combination of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute and by R-CALF USA.

The bill will now go to the House for action. Eventually it must be signed by the President, however the Bush Administration did not issue a Statement of Administration Policy, presumably since the final legislation would go to the desk of President Obama.

The Senate bill includes a sweeping package of more than 150 previous bills. Congressional sources report the new bill authorizes programs and activities in both the Interior and Agriculture departments. Interestingly, the Obama nominee to be the new Interior Secretary, Sen. Ken Salazar (D., Colo.), voted for the bill; while former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who is now the junior U.S. Senator from Nebraska, voted against it.

Congressional sources reported the bill authorizes a host of actions, including: national wilderness preservation, boundary adjustments, national rivers, the national landscape conservation system, national conservation areas, land conveyances and exchanges, watershed management, watershed restoration and enhancement, wildland firefighter safety, forest landscape restoration, national trails, paleontological resources preservation, wolf livestock loss, national parks, studies, infrastructure, advisory commissions, national heritage areas, national heritage corridors, water projects, tribal water rights, ocean exploration, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) undersea research, ocean and coastal mapping integration, the integrated coastal and ocean observation system, federal ocean acidification research and monitoring, and coastal and estuarine land conservation.