Public lands protections could move ahead in Congress this year

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Bills to expand public lands and widen protections throughout the west languished in the Republican Senate last year, but will return this year.

Democrats in Congress have a rare opportunity to advance an ambitious public lands agenda—if they can keep their tenuous majorities in line.

They’re also working with a new president of the same party who’s pledged to expand wilderness protections and highlighted climate change as one of his top three priorities.

Several bills that expand public lands and widen protections throughout the country, especially the west, languished in the Republican Senate last year but will return. A broad economic stimulus package expected later this year could boost public lands too.

Now that Senate Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, have slim control of the 50-50 chamber, conservation’s prospects might be brighter, some lawmakers and advocates say, though others remain skeptical.

“We have an ambitious Congress that wants to move forward,” said Julia Peebles, the government relations manager at the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We have an ambitious president that wants to move forward. I think this Congress is the time to do it. The stars have aligned.”

Democrats still control the House as well, but with a skinnier 221-211 majority compared to last year.

The slim margins in both chambers, differing opinions even among Democrats about how far to go on conservation, and a packed congressional agenda that includes high-profile items like impeachment and coronavirus relief all contribute to doubts among some that Congress will actually act.

Focus on climate

President Joe Biden in his first week in office indefinitely paused new oil and gas leases on public lands, pledged to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water by the end of the decade and canceled a natural gas pipeline.

Though some have opposed the pipeline deal, Democrats in Congress have mostly been supportive of Biden’s agenda on climate and conservation.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine and the incoming chairwoman of the House spending subcommittee that covers the Interior Department and environmental issues, said in an interview with States Newsroom this week she’s “very much in favor of” Biden’s proposals to stop fossil fuel development and increase renewable energy on public lands.

The new Senate majority leader, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, said Wednesday he’d asked the new Democratic chairs of relevant committees to prioritize climate change.

Even West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, considered the most conservative member of the Senate Democratic caucus and the incoming chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing on climate change Wednesday.

Manchin, who ran a 2010 campaign aid in which he shot a rifle at a Democrat-supported cap-and-trade bill, opened the hearing by acknowledging climate change is a problem that is largely human caused.

Despite coming from a coal state and his past opposition to some efforts to limit fossil fuel production, conservation advocates are hopeful Manchin will be amenable on some consensus issues. In the split Senate, he will be a key vote.

“I don’t expect him to become Bernie Sanders overnight, but I don’t think he’s going to be overly obstructionist and mindlessly pro-coal,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity.

“I think the senator’s really fair and committed to bipartisanship, which is great because these issues have bipartisan support,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. “There are a bunch of efforts out there that are bipartisan, have common ground, and should get a vote.”

Hopes for bipartisanship

The focus from Biden and Senate leaders allows for a greater possibility for conservation bills to become law, but at least 10 Republican votes will still be needed for most of them.

“Of course, I’m very excited about it,” Pingree said about the Senate flipping to Democratic control. “And I know it’s still a tight margin. But I think that on many of these issues to have the [administration’s agenda] being seen by both houses with a Democratic majority will just give more opportunities for looking at issues around climate change, taking a broad look on infrastructure, job creation.”

Such ideas could even attract some Republicans who may not be eager to lead on climate, but may be supportive, Pingree said.

Harry Fones, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, said the Republican freshman assigned to the House Natural Resources Committee is looking for “common sense” solutions and has sought common ground with Democrats on a variety of issues.

Asked if natural resources and conservation could be one of those issues, Fones said it was too early to tell. Protecting access to public lands, though, is something Rosendale intends to work on, he said.

Trying again

Advocates say there is plenty of support from both parties for conservation generally. Several bills that were introduced in the last Congress will reappear this year. They include:

  • A bill sponsored by Nevada’s entire delegation that would create a compromise for a piece of a wildlife refuge coveted by the Air Force for an expansion of a bombing range.
  • A bill to establish protections for 400,000 acres of federal land in Colorado and withdraw 200,000 acres from oil and gas use. Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, all Democrats, reintroduced the bill this week. It passed the House last year as part of the annual military authorization bill, but was not included in the Senate version and was cut from the version President Donald Trump signed into law.
  • Another Colorado bill, sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, would protect 660,000 acres across the state. It also passed as an amendment to the House version of the military authorization bill last year, but was not in the final version. DeGette reintroduced the bill Thursday.
  • A bill to protect tributaries to the Blackfoot River in Montana, sponsored by Jon Tester, the state’s Democratic senator. The bill did not receive a vote in the last Congress. Tester’s office said Wednesday he is planning to reintroduce the measure. The change in Senate control would not change the senator’s approach, a spokesman said.
  • A $1.4 billion bill to fund state and tribal restoration and conservation efforts. The measure, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, passed the House last year as an amendment to the surface transportation bill. A spokesman for Dingell said she intends to reintroduce the bill this Congress. It could ride again on a surface transportation authorization, which lawmakers will try and address before the current law expires in September.

In a statement, Dingell said the bill may have better odds this year.

“With Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House, we will combat climate change and enact environmental protections that will help our public lands survive and thrive for future generations,” she said. “But as we seek compromise in this new Congress, I hope our Republican colleagues will join us as we fight to protect our public lands and our natural resources.”

Biden’s pause on new oil and gas development on public lands also opens an opportunity to revisit the laws governing fossil fuel leases.

That could include bills to end leasing on low-potential lands, stop noncompetitive leases, and cap “orphaned wells” that occur when companies operating wells go out of business.

Budget blueprints

Democrats don’t need Senate Republican votes if they pass budgetary measures through a process known as reconciliation.

They could use that procedure twice this year, for the fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022 budgets, with the first expected to be focused on immediate coronavirus relief and the second likely to be aimed at general economic stimulus.

Funding to add tens of thousands of jobs restoring public lands could be part of the second package, conservation advocates said.

But the details —–and even the broad outlines—of that package, which would be for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, will not be negotiated for months.

Even if public lands issues are included in a budget reconciliation package, it’s far from certain that ambitious public lands protections would have the votes needed for passage.

Hartl, who said the Center for Biological Diversity almost exclusively lobbies Democrats, said the group is “trying to pitch them on going big.” But House and Senate Democrats are often reluctant to go as far as the conservation group believes is necessary.

That contributes to pessimism among some.

Susan Jane Brown, wildlands director with the conservation group Western Environmental Law Center, said Democrats controlling both chambers may moderately raise the chances of ambitious conservation bills, but it remains unlikely.

“It’s not like Democrats are a monolith,” she said. “The Democrats don’t have the votes.”

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom.