New Report Details the Coming Attack on America's Public Lands

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(08/31/1996) - Congress claims it has learned its lesson and is now more `green,' but a look at its recent actions and those expected this fall shows that the attack on our parks and wildlands has not relented. Rather than declaring peace, anti-environmental lawmakers have merely changed their battle plans, dressed up in camouflage and adopted more insidious guerrilla tactics. Those who suppose otherwise may be shocked come September.
- Stewardship Under Siege: The Coming Attack on Our Public Lands, August 31, 1996

Washington, D.C. - As Americans go back to work after the Labor Day break, most will leave the beaches and parklands where they vacationed behind them - but Congress won't. According to a report released this weekend by Defenders of Wildlife, Congress is expected to pursue at least 18 public lands attacks when it returns from its Labor Day recess.

Stewardship Under Siege: The Coming Attack on Our Public Lands provides fifty pages of details warning that the nation faces a "September Surprise" of legislative proposals endangering wildlife and natural areas in all fifty states, weakening protection for the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, and setting dangerous precedents for the National Park System and for the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Stewardship Under Siege warns that when Americans return from enjoying their summer vacations at national seashores, parks, forests, and wilderness areas, they may be surprised to learn the variety of ways in Congress carries out attacks on these areas. For example, most vacationers lying on the beach at Cape Hatteras are unaware of a pending bill that would hand to the Army 65 acres of that very national seashore.

Defenders' President Rodger Schlickeisen stresses that, "Despite recent pro- environmental rhetoric from congressional leaders, certain Members of Congress are working to enact several dozen public lands proposals that would damage wildlife and land belonging to all Americans. Although the public may think that Congress is turning green before the elections, we're seeing red for danger ahead. At least as far as public lands issues are concerned, the 104th Congress continues to be the most anti-environmental Congress in history."

The new report describes eighteen bills or amendments that are among those with the greatest potential for damaging America's natural heritage and wildlife and that various Members of Congress are hoping to enact before the 104th Congress adjourns in October. According to the report, these proposals show the discrepancy between congressional words and actions.

Every major national public land system, including national wildlife refuges, national forests, national parks and Bureau of Land Management areas, is represented in the catalogue of threats. From national seashores on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to Boundary Waters wilderness lakes in Minnesota, to Colorado riverbeds that provide wildlife habitat, these proposals would take away national resources belonging to all Americans for the benefit of big corporations or other local interests.

"Heading into the Congressional homestretch, both motives and opportunities abound for enacting a number of damaging bills and riders. Conservationists must be on red alert against a series of attacks on public lands and wildlife," says report co-author Robert Dewey, Defenders of Wildlife's Director of Habitat Conservation.

Among the opportunities for damage, the report names two broad pieces of public lands legislation expected to clear Congress this year. The Omnibus Parks bill, in particular, threatens to become a "legislative train" that will be loaded with proposals that have been too controversial to move on their own. This bill, primarily intended to protect the historical Presidio military base and lands in San Francisco, has already passed both houses and is currently in conference.

Destructive proposals may be added either in conference or during floor consideration. The Interior appropriations bill, which has yet to be considered by the full Senate, may again become a legislative train attracting stowaway and standby bills, as well as budget cuts already on-board. Legislative riders on last year's Interior funding bill were a major reason for an initial veto by President Clinton. A number of individual bills have a good chance to hitch onto these legislative trains or get a ticket to ride on their own this year.

According to the report, Congress has had to change its methods of attack this year. In 1995 legislators devoted substantial attention to proposals to give away or sell off huge portions of the national estate. These proposals elicited a massive public outcry. So in 1996, in the second session of the 104th Congress, Members of Congress instead have focussed much of their attention on region-specific proposals and on enacting arcane but radical changes in the management of the more than 500 national wildlife refuges and 270 million acres of BLM lands.

The report notes that, "largely unknown to the general public, these sneak attacks would shift management from conservation to development."

For example, after wholesale public rejection of more overtly radical proposals like giving hundreds of millions of acres of BLM areas to the states, Congress is now pursuing bills like H.R. 1675, which would give recreational use precedence over wildlife conservation throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System. and S. 1459, which would shift the management of BLM areas from providing for multiple uses to giving one use - grazing by private ranchers - precedence over other public uses on millions of acres in the West.

Moreover, because of widespread publicity and opposition earlier in this Congress, the Alaska congressional delegation has moved to the backburner the proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - the nation's largest refuge - to oil drilling. They've switched their attention over the short term to a less visible attack on the largest national forest - the Tongass National Forest, which provides temperate rainforest habitat to many species of wildlife.

The scope of the attack is camouflaged by conducting it through multiple legislative skirmishes, according to the report. These proposals include a misleading bill requiring logging under the guise of giving the land to so-called "landless natives," a 15-year extension of the Ketchikan Pulp Company's monopoly, and a rider on the Senate Interior appropriations bill to delay implementation of a new Tongass management plan.

Dewey notes, "We face a relatively unique situation at this stage of the 104th Congress. Several legislative trains are still in the station at a time when a record number of would be passengers are lined up at the gate. For the good of our nation's parks, forests, refuges and BLM lands, Congress must pare down the anti-environmental passenger lists on these trains."

When Congress returns in early September, its continuing anti- environment agenda is expected to include legislation that would:

  • Create an environmentally damaging and fiscally irresponsible federal grazing program. (Western States)
  • Weaken management of the National Wildlife Refuge System through increased development and recreation activities that would harm wildlife. (National Impact)
  • Deny funds to implement Clinton Administration efforts to minimize logging of healthy green trees under the clearcut rider. (National Impact)
  • Extend the Ketchikan Pulp Company's 50-year monopoly contract to log a huge volume of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.
  • Give away a huge part of the Tongass National Forest, heart of the world's largest temperate rainforest, to private corporations. (Alaska)
  • Extend the notorious 1995 clearcut rider under the pretext of addressing a pretended "forest health" crisis. (National Impact)
  • Weaken conservation protections for millions of acres of national parks, national wildlife refuges and other conservation areas in Alaska.
  • Hand over management of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota to a local group stacked in favor of development.
  • Hand over management of a national wildlife refuge to the State of Oklahoma, even though this would permit activities that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says would harm bald eagles and other wildlife.
  • Repeat funding cutbacks for most natural resource agencies while using the budget process to impose new environmental rollbacks, such as barring U.S. Forest Service adoption of a better management plan for the Tongass National Forest. (Alaska)
  • Remove several beach areas on environmentally sensitive barrier islands in Florida from the federal coastal barriers system, making rich corporations eligible for taxpayer-backed development subsidies.
  • Give to the Army land in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in order to construct environmentally damaging jetties on barrier islands in North Carolina.
  • Open the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in Minnesota to increased motorboat traffic, while giving local politicians more control over its management.
  • Hand over a vast acreage of irreplaceable ancient forest and endangered species habitat in Oregon so that the states can manage these lands principally for timber production.
  • Allow massive oil development on unspoiled lands in the National Petroleum Reserve in northern Alaska without prior review by Congress, federal agencies or the public.
  • Give away 30,000 acres of prime coastal habitat in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska to private corporations unless the government provides cash or land alternatives within 240 days.
  • Hand over lands containing important water sources for the Platte River to a town and company in Colorado, canceling the right of the federal government to regulate stream flows to protect wildlife.
  • Move toward commercializing and privatizing federal lands by establishing a corporate sponsorship program for the National Park System. (National Impact)

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Contact(s):

Robert Dewey, 202-682-9400 x228 (Conservation)
Mary Munson, 202-682-9400 x263 (Public Lands Associate)
Ken Goldman, 202-682-9400 x221 (Media)