U.S. House panel divides on party lines over how to conserve public lands

multiple use
“Despite what some have suggested, protecting lands is not about locking them up,” said committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.
multiple use
“Despite what some have suggested, protecting lands is not about locking them up,” said committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.

In a preview of the arguments likely to be repeated as the Biden administration and Congress work toward conservation goals, Democrats on a U.S. House panel Tuesday outlined what they say is a need for aggressive action on climate.

But Republicans worried increased federal involvement would be counterproductive to conservation goals while hurting rural economies.

Democrats and most Republicans present at the first hearing of the year for a House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands agreed conservation was a worthy goal, but had differing visions of what increased conservation should look like.

Members of the panel’s Democratic majority spent much of the morning responding to what full committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva called “misinformation” about the scope and purpose of increased conservation designations.

“Despite what some have suggested, protecting lands is not about locking them up,” Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), said. “We also need to acknowledge that merely extraction, whether it’s mining, oil, gas, or clearcutting… is not conservation, no matter how you dress it up.”

Republicans, including Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who was a witness at the hearing, said they favored “active conservation” but that some existing federal laws made effective land management harder and hurt the environment.

Little made a distinction between what he called well-intentioned efforts at preservation—which he framed as completely restrictive of any human use that did more harm than good—and a widely popular “active conservation” approach that allows for multiple use of public lands, including grazing and forestry.

“The no-action approach generally does little more than incubate dangerous conditions, prevent active management and hurt rural communities,” Little said.

Several Republicans on the panel expressed willingness to work with Democrats on conservation goals, but said they opposed what they’d seen so far from the Biden administration and the Democratic-led House.

”If you’re talking about truly locking stuff up in wilderness areas, as the definition of wilderness is, then it’s going to be hard for us to support that.,” committee ranking member Bruce Westerman, (R-Ark.), said.

A broad public lands bill the House passed mostly along party lines last month went too far, subcommittee ranking Republican Russ Fulcher of Idaho, said, because it designated 1.9 million acres of wilderness and revoked 1.2 million acres from mineral production.

“If that is indicative of tomorrow’s policy on public lands, the future is bleak,” Fulcher said.

But Rep. Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat who was the lead sponsor of the public lands package, said most lands included in the administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. waters and lands by 2030 did not have to be designated wilderness, the government’s most restrictive category.

Wilderness would only account for a small percentage, she said, while most lands would still be available for multiple uses.

Little and congressional Republicans said such policies eliminated jobs in rural areas.

California Democrat Katie Porter referenced a Boston University study that projected that $1 million of investment in oil and gas created about 8.4 jobs, but that the same spending on conservation would support 20.6 jobs.

Porter asked Little, who’d signed a letter to President Joe Biden expressing concerns about the administration’s pause of new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands, if he’d write a similar letter calling for more conservation and forest management investment. Little declined.

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