Volume 9, Number 6 - April 30, 2009
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A battle brewing over NREPA
Two distinct sides are preparing to battle over a recurring piece of legislation that would dramatically alter land management in Wyoming and the West.
On one end of the ideological spectrum are environmental groups who have introduced the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) to Congress. The act, contained in H.R. 980 and co-sponsored by 71 house members primarily from California and states east of the Mississippi River, sets aside 24 million acres of public land in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington as wilderness, meaning the land would be off limits to motorized vehicles, road building, mining and timber sales.
In response to the act, local leaders and Wyoming’s entire congressional delegation are preparing a counter attack. They contend NREPA is nothing more than a land grab by meddling outsiders that would debilitate local economies with strict land use rules by squashing traditional recreation and industry from large tracts of public land.
The debate’s zero hour is scheduled for the afternoon of May 5. That’s when the U.S. House of Representatives National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee will hold a hearing on NREPA.
Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman plans to be there. He has been selected by western Wyoming’s Coalition of Local Governments to testify against the bill.
“It (H.R. 980) would destroy our economic diversity,” Bousman said. “That’s why the public is very, very alarmed.”
Some environmental groups think the time is politically ripe. They believe the current system exploits public lands for short-term, corporate benefits. They see a major shift in the impious of public lands management as the lynchpin of western prosperity and sustainability.
The two sides couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.
Judging by a map of proposed wilderness additions, the effect on Sublette County would be significant. It indicates popular recreation sites like Fremont Lake, Half Moon Lake, Willow Lake, New Fork Lake and Boulder Lake would become wilderness as well as larger sections in the Wyoming Range and the Upper Green River Lakes area.
The concept isn’t new. Environmental groups, scientists and even pop music artists have pushed for versions of the bill since 1992 when “movement ecology” began taking root in the American west.
Initially nameless, movement ecology developed from the concept that animal species are being deprived genetic interchange by geographic isolation resulting from human encroachment. In other words, human roads, cities, railroads and subdivisions are fragmenting native animal species populations into isolated “islands” that limit their natural movement thereby shrinking the genetic pool.
And that shrunken genetic pool slowly erodes the genetic viability of entire animal species.
To combat it, ecologists proposed creating ecological corridors to facilitate the large-scale movement of individual animals across otherwise impassable terrain (e.g. terrain bisected by an interstate or developed into a sprawling suburban zone.)
For the past 16 years, movement ecology grew in popularity, as did the concept of global warming. Now the two ideas have merged into a movement that says corridors must be established to accommodate animal movements as those creatures respond to the effects of global warming.
“That’s what our primary focus is right now,” said Sierra Club Regional Director Steve Thomas. “We look at what habitats and corridors are critical in terms of climate change.”
Thomas’ group, while not actively lobbying for H.R. 980, officially endorses the act.
Essentially, H.R. 980 creates a region-wide version of movement corridors woven into the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS).
That system was created in 1964 to protect undeveloped areas of the United States including the Bridger Wilderness Area west of Pinedale. As most Sublette County residents know, wilderness areas have strict rules banning machinery (including bicycles), development and industry.
NREPA advocates say those same strict rules can be used to permanently preserve a system of national wildlife corridors.
Opponents say NREPA would “lock up” public lands and cite the bill as an example of outsiders meddling in Wyoming’s affairs.
Big city infringement
In February, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced H.B. 980 to Congress. Now it is scheduled for the third committee hearing in the bill’s history.
While it’s no surprise Wyoming’s congressional delegation opposes the bill, the level of animosity is surprising – and palpable.
“Typically, if legislation is coming up affecting a state, the ethos is to reach out to members of the affected state,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis’ Press Secretary Ryan Taylor. “And Rep. Maloney has not done that at all.” He continued, “Frankly, New York has their own land issues. Maybe she should look at that first.”
Phone calls and emails to Rep. Maloney were not returned.
H.R. 980 has infuriated many rank-and-file Wyomingites as well.
Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s office reported hearing a lot of feedback about H.R. 980 with “very little of it positive,” according to spokesperson Gregory Keeley.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) referred to a comment he made when NREPA was introduced in 2007.
“It seems like every year legislators, whose districts are nowhere near Wyoming, come up with a bill telling Wyoming and other rural states how to manager our land,” he said. “The West won’t stand idly by while big city legislators gang up on the minority states and try to choke off access to areas that were intended for the enjoyment and use of the entire country.”
The criticism of outsiders meddling in western affairs appears to be well founded. Of 71 cosponsors, only two are from the affected states: Washington Democratic Representatives Jay Inslee and Jim DcDermott.
Ideology also plays a significant role in the debate. All but two cosponsors are Democrats.
But not all Democrats support the bill. Gov. Dave Freudenthal pulls no punches about his opposition.
“That is an absurd piece of legislation brought by someone who has the capacity to introduce bills, but who lacks the wisdom to understand what they would do,” he said. “I have been opposed to it from the start and I remain opposed to it in all forms. This legislation deserves an unceremonious execution.”
A fighting chance
NREPA has never had much legislative success, but with the nation’s political winds taking a left turn last November, some NREPA proponents believe H.R. 980 has a fighting chance.
And for Tuesday’s meeting, the political structure is in place.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, one of the bill’s cosponsors, chairs the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee. Grijalva’s politics are well known. At one time rumored to be on President Barack Obama’s short list for Secretary of Interior, Grijalva adamantly denounced the George W. Bush administration’s public land policy. Specifically he criticized the administration’s accommodation of extractive-resource industries.
Staffers for Rep. Grijalva were unable to arrange an interview for this story.
Now it appears the new leadership in Washington D.C., spearheaded by Grijalva and Maloney, is poised to move the country’s public land policy in a new direction.
Half empty, half full
“In Wyoming, we have ski resorts, summer marinas, motorized boat use, snowmachining, recreational vehicle sites, developed campgrounds, designated off-road vehicle trails, existing public roads, guest lodges and ranches, summer homes and facilities used by other resource agencies – all within the area encompassed by this bill,” Bousman wrote in a press release. “Under this bill these areas would all have to be shut down and obliterated.”
But according to a NREPA author and Montana resident, Bousman is wrong.
“He is misinformed,” Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said. “The bill only covers inventoried roadless areas. If it has development, it doesn’t’ qualify as wilderness.”
Garrity said only existing roadless areas under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service (FS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would be affected by NREPA. He said existing roads or structures would not be “obliterated.” And he said private property would be unaffected.
He said NREPA was crafted by westerners who understand western issues – including multi-use.
He did, however, suggest snowmobile access could be restricted because the machines do not operate on existing infrastructure.
“That’s why you have hearings,” he said, adding those issues would be worked out through the NWPS administrative process.
Bousman isn’t convinced.
“All I can do is go by what’s in the bill,” he said. “The language in the bill says nothing about hearings. All it says is this area is added to the existing wilderness system.”
Bousman said he does not see provisions allowing energy production, livestock grazing, nor timber management.
Indeed, the bill’s language appears to denounce industry’s access to public land, and it paints a dark picture of the current state of public land management.
“The overemphasis on resource extraction from National Forest System land and public lands administered by the (BLM) has compromised ecosystem integrity and detracted from economic diversification opportunities,” the bill reads. “Economic instability and high unemployment in rural resource-dependent communities is a common result of overexploitation of these lands.”
By contrast, Bousman and the Wyoming Congressional Delegation characterize the region as successfully flourishing due to the wise use of public lands.
“The reason why we have such a pristine environment, healthy communities and abundant wildlife here in the Northern Rockies is because we have found a way for families, business and communities to thrive here, co-existing with our natural resource…” Bousman said. “Don’t take our ability to do that away from us.”
Rep. Lummis agreed, saying through her spokesperson: “Cynthia Lummis believes for generations we have been great stewards of the land and she wants future generations to have future access to that land.”
A long struggle
According to Garrity, the communities around Yellowstone and Yosemite were opposed to creating those national parks. Now those same communities are reaping the long-term benefits of conserving natural resources.
In fact, he asserts that preservation will nourish more vibrant and stable economic conditions than the West’s notorious boom and bust cycles.
Bousman, on the other hand, doesn’t see the benefits to Sublette County.
“The contribution to the economy from the Bridger Wilderness is nothing compared to the contribution of the Forest Service land that is not on the wilderness in terms of hunting, fishing and recreational access,” he said. “You put it in the wilderness and we’ll loose our recreational base.”
It’s another facet that demonstrates the two sides of this issue see the issue in decidedly different ways.
Thus far neither side is discussing compromise. It’s going to be a protracted conflict.
The battle that rages over H.B. 980 is another struggle over the hot-topic of public lands.
NREPA represents more than legislation. It represents two distinct visions of the West.
One version puts the land to work using traditional activities and industries to create jobs and grow communities. The other version uses it to preserve the West’s natural heritage and splendor as a tool to create jobs and grow communities.
The stakes are high. A group opposed to H.R. 980 has organized a Thursday meeting at the Pinedale School auditorium at 7:30 p.m. where it plans to collect comments to send to Washington D.C.
No doubt, opponents and proponents will be doing the same all across Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
While the battle isn’t new, the nation’s political climate is, and this bill has again become the ideological battlefield for the heart and soul of the west.
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