U.S. Senate passes sweeping public lands act
Friday, February 15, 2019
Despite the historic levels of partisanship we’ve seen out of Washington, D.C., recently, there’s been some surprising bipartisan activity in the Senate regarding public lands expansion: the National Resources Management Act (NRMA). Now the Act heads to the House, which is expected to pass it next month with an endorsement from a supportive President Trump to codify it into law.
Sure, cynics among us can look for the hidden agenda. How could enthusiasm for land conservation efforts be trusted amidst so much environmental deregulation? What can an overwhelmingly enthusiastic Senate vote of 92-8 tell us about today’s Big Oil machinations?
Like anything optimistically sold as a bipartisan green initiative, this package (NRMA) is a mixed bag of tricks to be sure. But that gives us something to work with, right?
For starters, nothing short of 1 million acres of newly protected land in the West is included in the package. Other highlights include four new national monuments, including the Mississippi home of civil rights icons Medgar and Myrlie Evers; habitat protections for 380 bird species under the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act; preservation of lands from mineral extraction; and protection 620 miles of rivers as “wild and scenic.” The list goes on.
One key highlight in this sprawling, 662-page package is the inclusion of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund was allowed to lapse during the first years of the Trump administration.
Now, oil and gas drilling profits will be paid to the federal government to be used for “major national parks and wildlife preserves, as well as local baseball diamonds and basketball courts.” This measure is now permanently authorized, but so is offshore drilling.
This is a mixed bag for some, and lipstick on the pig of Big Oil land and water exploitation for others. After all, there are many people who believe that the U.S. economy’s reliance on oil extraction is a crisis that will not be easily rectified by funneling oil profits towards parks and baseball diamonds.
There are also controversies over 660,000 acres of new Utah public lands, which include a wilderness study area that will be an expanded coal mine. Also, 448,000 acres of pristine Alaskan land is potentially being used as "trade-bait" in the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act.
Another interesting NRMA feature of note is its co-sponsorship by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Alaska is facing immense battles over oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — including the recent cancellation of a seismic survey. ANWR, which could potentially generate billions in federal revenue over the next decade, is not one of the lovely tracts of land protected under this new legislation although it’s the largest wildlife refuge in the U.S.
Is one consequence of this conservation pomp and circumstance an effort to distract from the fact that Big Oil’s eyes are squarely set on the ANWR prize?
A real environmental victory would have been inclusion of 1002 Area, on Alaska’s North Slope, for preservation. It was omitted from the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that established national monuments, parks, and wilderness areas.
This omission leaves 1002 Area open for oil and gas leasing as early as July 2019: a tragic loss in one of the biggest environmental battles in U.S. history that carries heavy symbolic weight as well. A new bipartisan bill proposes to bar ANWR drilling, so this debate is ongoing.
Then there’s that pesky Sturgeon v. Frost case in the U.S. Supreme Court. This case has captured the attention of people interested in Native fishing rights as well as federal/state legislative clashes. Embedded within the NRMA provisions are enhanced hunting and sport fishing rights: see S.733.
Is this pro-hunting language a nod in favor of John Sturgeon, who wants to pilot his moose-hunting hovercraft on protected waters against the National Parks Service’s wishes? Or will NRMA language favor federal waterway protections?
Many native Alaskans oppose legally enhanced waterway access because it threatens subsistence fishing rights. The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the Sturgeon case again in November, with a decision expected in May or June 2019.
Meanwhile, hunters and fishing enthusiasts have hailed NRMA for its expansion of access. How will this new access conflict with indigenous subsistence hunting and fishing rights?
More preserved land and wildlife, and more protections from egregious toxic extraction methods, are green moves that appeal across partisan lines. Environmental optimists can hail the Senate’s passing (and Trump’s anticipated signing) of NRMA as a victory for those advocating climate change preparedness and wilderness conservation. The NRMA vote came on the same day the House held hearings on climate change’s impacts on indigenous American communities.
Meanwhile, environmental pessimists wonder how NRMA’s big number fanfare obscures some of the larger social ecological struggles defining our era — especially Arctic drilling and threatened frontline communities battling for their subsistence hunting and fishing rights all over the expansive nation.
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