The next great American deficit will be in open space if House Republicans get their way.
Nearly 60 million acres of protected public lands were put on the chopping block yesterday, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s “Great Outdoors Giveaway” Act, HR 1581, received a hearing in the Public Lands Subcommittee. The bill proposes to release millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area—including iconic treasures in Utah like Fiddler Butte, Labyrinth Canyon and the Dirty Devil—as well as Forest Service Roadless areas nationwide. (For a map of the carnage, visit www.greatoutdoorsgiveaway.org)
This bill is a breathtakingly obvious kowtow to industry. Forty percent of the BLM lands in Utah currently protected as WSA’s—a staggering 1.3 million acres—would be released from their use as pristine camping, hiking, fishing and hunting lands to be opened for development. If it were to pass, 82 percent of America’s public lands would be exposed to the ravages of short-term greed.
Testifying before the subcommittee, former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the bill “a wealth transfer from the American people to the oil and gas and mining and timber industries.
“If you scratch the surface of this bill, you find drill, baby, drill,” Babbitt said.
Drill, baby, drill, and a whole lot of nonsense.
On hand to explain why we would surrender America’s outdoor heritage to industry was Utah state legislator Mike Noel, whose illustrious “involvement” in public lands policy includes inciting an illegal off-road vehicle ride up Paria Canyon in Utah.
Dusting off the dog-eared playbook of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Noel asserted having federal lands in Utah made it difficult for the state to fund the schools because the state can’t collect enough property taxes. He completely forgot to mention the Secure Rural Schools payments Utah receives from the federal government—more than $12 million in fiscal 2010.
Noel did mention, however, that Utah has spent “untold millions” of its own trying to reopen ghost routes under an archaic mining law that allows counties to claim historical “highways.” Unfortunately the highways Utah tries to claim using taxpayers’ “untold millions” are ghost routes that look like this. No wonder the schools are hard up—Utah’s lawmakers clearly failed their basic family finance test on prioritizing expenses.
Fortunately, there were a number of House champions on hand to defend America’s public lands— and reality.
Responding to an assertion that nobody wants to hunt in wilderness or roadless areas because it’s hard to pack out the animal, Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico pulled out a photograph of an elk he hunted in a roadless area and packed five miles to the nearest road.
“The reason I was able to harvest an elk on the first day of hunting season was because I was in a roadless area,” Heinrich said, explaining that such protected lands make the best habitat, and therefore make the best game.
Rep. Raul Grijalva railed against the bill, which would “deprive future generations of the chance to enjoy our country’s rich natural heritage.” Rep. Ed Markey noticed that while McCarthy’s supporters are eager to release the WSAs the BLM did not recommend for designation in the early 1990s, they are reluctant to designate the millions of acres that were recommended by the agency at that time. How strange.
Indeed, HR 1581 would have a devastating impact on our nation’s wild places. Of the 221 wilderness areas that have been designated on BLM land since the passage of the Wilderness Act, a staggering 98 of them would have been released under this bill. Even the Cedar Mountain Wilderness—proposed and designated by Rep. Rob Bishop—would have been released under its myopic vision.
Fortunately, as yesterday’s hearing showed us, there are still a few in Congress who can see what a bad idea McCarthy’s bill is.