Volume 9, Number 8 - May 12, 2009
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NREPA on hot seat
Another step in the legislative life of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) was completed Tuesday, May 5, after a hearing in Washington, D.C.
The act, contained in H.R. 980, would designate more than 24 million acres of existing public land as wilderness in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Proponents say the bill would provide large-scale protections for western biospheres, while opponents say it would wreak havoc on western economies.
During a late-afternoon hearing split solidly along party lines, the House Natural Resource Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (NPFPL) heard testimony from 11 witnesses, including Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman.
There was no vote on the bill.
After the hearing, committee member Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she would like to see the bill die in committee.
“Our fondest hope is it will not even be voted on,” she said. “(Hopefully) today Commissioner Bousman so intimidated them that we will never hear from this bill again this session.”
Bousman’s testimony focused on the economic affect NREPA would have on Sublette and Lincoln counties.
Bousman described the area as having a healthy economy and a healthy environment, explaining both counties have developed sustainable economies while species like the grizzly bear have reached their biological recovery goals.
He added NREPA would severely jeopardize that balancing act testifying, “Nothing about this legislation is good for our citizens or good for our economy.”
New York support
NREPA was first introduced to Congress in 1993 by one of its main proponents: New York’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
This year is no exception; in February, Maloney sponsored H.R. 980 and during Tuesday’s hearing, she testified that 75 cosponsors have added their support to the bill – including NPFPL Chair Raul Grijalva.
But Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) pointed out during his testimony that not one congressional representative from the affected areas supports the bill.
“Real conservation isn’t about making tough decisions for someone else who lives thousands of miles away,” he said. “Yet that’s exactly what NREPA does.”
NREPA proponent Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) objected, saying the act isn’t a regional issue; it’s a national issue.
“This land belongs to us too,” she argued. “It doesn’t just belong to the people of the west.”
She called for a lowering of suspicions, saying, “It’s not us against them.”
That spirit was short lived.
During her witness questions, Rep. Lummis asked Maloney how much time she had spent in Wyoming. Maloney answered she spent two weeks in the designated areas of Wyoming and Montana.
Lummis asked her if that included Pinedale or Afton; Maloney answered “no,” saying she had been to Cheyenne.
One of the primary objections to NREPA is its size. With the bill targeting an area just larger than the state of Indiana, opponents worry land management decisions wrought through a process of local collaboration will be replaced by high-level, broad-spectrum dictums.
“Clearly this bill usurps the public process by seeking a congressional mandate rather than a well-conceived plan at the local level,” Commissioner Bousman said.
He wasn’t the only one voicing that concern.
Saying he appreciates the bill’s intent and supports additions to the current system, Forest Service Deputy Chief Joel Holtrup expressed unease about the bill’s effect on current forest revision plans.
“One concern about an overarching effort is it hasn’t been as collaborative as we’re able to do at a local basis,” Holtrup said, adding the bill might eliminate existing forest plans fashioned between the Forest Service and local governments.
Cost and jobs
The price of NREPA can only be estimated: Holtrup guessed between $60 million and $500 million saying that money would be earmarked for planning, boundary marking and boundary protection.
Mike Nedd, Bureau of Land Management acting deputy director, had a similar estimate.
But H.R. 980 supporters say that money will be put to work creating jobs under the National Wildland Restoration and Recovery System – a component of NREPA.
In her testimony, ex-pop star and Idaho resident Carol King said the restoration system would provide communities with well-paying jobs as federal agencies employ workers to establish boundaries and restore wilderness.
She said eliminating the current system of taxpayer-financed road building on federal land would actually save the government money.
“So the American taxpayers are not being asked to pay for this bill,” she said. “They’re being asked to save money.”
She said NREPA would not adversely affect local economies; paradoxically, she stated, it would create more jobs through recreation and restoration.
Commissioner Bousman did not agree.
“The area being proposed is presently making significant economic contributions,” he said. “They are neither undeveloped nor roadless.”
He said Sublette and Lincoln counties expect a drastic economic blow if NREPA becomes law. He said the two counties would lose more than 4,000 jobs under the bill and he was skeptical that the restoration jobs – estimated at 2,300 nationally – would compensate for the lost work.
He also explained that concerned citizens packed the Pinedale High School Auditorium during a recent NREPA opposition meeting. He added not one person supported it, saying, “That is how angry and scared the people are in our community.”
Will it pass?
Thus far a committee vote has not been scheduled for the bill. If it is brought to a vote, 21 Democratic and 14 Republican members will decide the bill’s fate.
But H.R. 980 supporters have other options.
Lummis’ Legislative Director Rick Axthelm said because the bill has been introduced into Congress, it could be attached to legislation.
“They wouldn’t have to go through a committee process to do that,” he explained. “Obviously that’s not the way Congress was intended to act.”
The Lummis camp believes opposition to H.R. 980 from western Democratic representatives will preclude any such legislative maneuvering.
“But it’s not out of the realm of possibility,” Axthelm warned.
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