Love public lands? Speak up on these bills.

Cedar Mesa Citadel Ruins BLM photo

To no one’s surprise, measures assaulting public lands are coming fast and furious. Gratifyingly, public outcry forced Rep. Jason “Privatize It All” Chaffetz to withdraw H.R. 621, which would have sold 3.3 million acres of public lands to the highest bidder. I’m pretty sure that bill was a decoy designed to distract attention from other, equally nefarious legislation. There are plenty of other threats looming. Here are three you should know about.

H.R. 622 “Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act”

This is another bill from Rep. Chaffetz, and it’s still on the table. The bill would transfer law enforcement on BLM and Forest Service land to local police. Federal agency rangers, who are specially trained to deal with the complex and myriad law enforcement issues on public lands, would be disempowered.

Enforcing the law on the 438 million acres of public land managed by BLM and the Forest Service involves more than citing people without appropriate permits for camping or fishing. Federal law enforcement officers routinely investigate timber rustling, archaeological looting and vandalism, poaching, illegal immigration, and wildfires, for starters.  They know backcountry safety and survival skills, and can lead or assist in backcountry emergencies. These issues require specialized training and knowledge and are drastically different from those typically encountered by local police.

Gold Butte National Monument BLM
Gold Butte National Monument’s many resources, including archaeological sites and desert bighorn sheep, are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM photo via Flickr)

The major opposition to the bill has come from sportsmen’s groups such as Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. They fear that handing law enforcement on federal public lands over to local police could interfere with federal management of those lands, eventually opening them to abuse and possible transfer to state or local governments. Of course, this is precisely what Rep. Chaffetz would like to have happen.

The idea that federal lands would be adequately and expertly patrolled by local police, who generally do an excellent job on their own patch, is patently misguided. States don’t have the budget to support programs they already have, so finding money to fund local law enforcement on public lands is a non-starter. Without funding, law enforcement will be eviscerated, and so will the treasures our public lands safeguard. Managing federal public lands is a complex process, one that the Forest Service and BLM do expertly. Leave public lands law enforcement where it belongs, in the competent hands of public lands agencies.

Chaffetz introduced the bill on January 24, and it has been referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands and the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. Click the links to view committee members, and please contact your representative to voice your opinion on the bill.

H.R. 1349 – Amend the Wilderness act to allow bikes, etc.

We’ve been here before, folks. This bill from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) would amend the Wilderness Act to allow bikes and other forms of wheeled transport.

When I first saw this, I had a flash of hiking through, oh, I don’t know, the Glacier Peak Wilderness at, say, Image Lake, one of the most scenic spots in the country, and having to yield to some fast-moving mountain bikes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-mountain bike. Far from it.

But there are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands designated as multiple use, which means there are hundreds of millions of acres already available for mountain bikers. Let’s look at the numbers:

About 621,473,785 acres, or 28 percent of the United States, is federally managed public land. More than a third of it, nearly 225 million acres, is in Alaska.

Most federal public land is managed by five big agencies: BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of Defense. Agencies like the Postal Service and the US Geological Service manage another 10-20 million acres.

The National Wilderness Preservation System contains 109,127,689 acres of land, less than 5 percent of the total area of the United States. Just over half of the wilderness system, about 57 million acres, is in Alaska.

I’m guessing Alaska wilderness is not where most mountain bikers are hoping to ride.

Which means they’re eyeing the 52,555,140 acres of designated wilderness in the lower 48 states. That’s an area about the size of Kansas. And okay, Kansas is not small, but surely we can afford to leave that much land free from mechanized transportation like bikes and strollers.

Statutory wilderness comprises 13 percent of federal public land in the contiguous United States (it’s 2.7 percent of all the land in the contiguous United States). The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness retains its “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The Wilderness Act explicitly prohibits mechanized transport except in certain very restricted circumstances, such as rescuing a gravely injured person.

The Wilderness Act ascribes four characteristics to wilderness. It’s natural, “with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” It has “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” It’s at least 5,000 acres or big enough to preserve and use in an unimpaired condition. And it may “contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Those characteristics starkly conflict with the prospect of mountain bike use in wilderness. I’ve hiked plenty of multiple use trails — yes, I always yield to bikes and yes, the mountain bikers I’ve encountered usually ride responsibly — and mountain bikes do not mix well with “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” “primitive” recreation, and “ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” Allowing mountain bikes and other wheeled transport into wilderness will add more pressure to these already heavily used places, endangering the very qualities that make them so special.

Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act, which Rep. McClintock’s bill would amend, currently prohibits commercial enterprises and roads within wilderness, except where private inholdings already exist. Also prohibited: temporary roads, motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, landing aircraft, any other form of mechanical transport, and any structure or installation within any such area.”

If passed, this section would include this provision: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit the use of motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized wheelchairs, non-motorized bicycles, strollers, wheelbarrows, survey wheels, measuring wheels, or game carts within any wilderness area.”

Riiiight. So, McClintock’s proposed bill language would completely undermine the provisions of the Wilderness Act and in doing so, weaken wilderness protection, the strongest protection afforded our public lands.

Unlike H.R. 622, this bill potentially pits public lands supporters against each other. Many (but significantly, not all) mountain bike groups are solidly behind this bill; wilderness groups oppose it. So another effect of the legislation may be to drive a wedge into the environmental movement, which certainly is not monolithic. This is an instance where some frank dialogue would likely be productive.

Please express your opposition to weakening the Wilderness Act. Contact your representative, Rep. McClintock, bill cosponsors Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), and the members of the House Natural Resources Committee.

H.J. Res. 69 – “Providing for Congressional disapproval…”

The whole title is too unwieldy to include, but this essentially overturns the “Fair Chase” rule implemented by the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Obama. The rule requires that in Alaska’s national wildlife refuges, hunting for the purposes of controlling predators must be consistent with the purpose of wildlife refuges (which, need I point out, is to offer a refuge for wildlife) and “based on sound science in response to a conservation concern.”

Uh-oh. For sponsor Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and many of his Republican colleagues, “sound science” is held in low regard. You know, like climate change or the theory of evolution.

The “Fair Chase” rule bans certain hunting methods on Alaska refuges, including killing bear cubs or adult females with cubs, baiting brown bears, taking bears using snares and traps, and aerial shooting of bears and wolves. Subsistence hunting, practiced for millennia by indigenous peoples, is allowed.

But this isn’t subsistence hunting. Nor is it about livestock protection. This is a license to shoot animals in their dens, to kill mother animals so bear cubs and wolf pups will starve, to run animals down by plane and helicopter, and to set bait traps — basically, lazy trophy hunting under the guise of predator control.

For many decades, predator control philosophy could be succinctly expressed as “shoot as many coyotes/bears/wolves/cougars as you can.” Today, thanks to decades of research, including that pioneered by Aldo Leopold and Adolph Murie, predator control is more thoughtful and nuanced. Done correctly, predator control helps sustain healthy populations of deer, moose, elk, and other ungulates. Eliminating this rule would change all that in Alaska’s national wildlife refuges, home to some of North America’s most iconic animals.

Opponents of H.J. Res. 69 say it contradicts scientific understanding of predator-prey relationships, promotes unethical and unsportsmanlike hunting, and is nothing more than an NRA-backed attempt to encourage more gun use.

Arcane rules allow Congress to repeal certain rules implemented by the executive branch within 60 legislative days of their enactment. It’s a rarely used tactic, but this Congress has already passed numerous joint resolutions targeting Obama administration rules. H.J. Res. 69 is up against the deadline for repeal, and expressing opposition can help protect Alaska’s large mammals. Contact the bill’s sponsors: Rep. Don Young, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV). Check the membership of the House Natural Resources Committee and contact your congressperson.

Its Senate companion, S.J. Res. 18, is sponsored by Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which Murkowski chairs.

Sit at the table

Just a few days after last November’s election, Outside magazine interviewed now-former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The entire interview is well worth a listen, but one thing in particular stuck with me. Jewell said she’d learned quickly that “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Speaking up makes a difference. Every public lands and outdoor recreation advocate should take this maxim to heart. Stand up for our national natural heritage by telling your elected representatives how you feel and what you expect from them. I don’t want to be on the menu. Pull up a chair. Let’s sit at the table.

Bonus: check out Climbing magazine’s article about what you can do to fight threats to federal public lands. It’s relevant for anyone who cares about these issues.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
View all posts by Lauren Danner →

9 thoughts on “Love public lands? Speak up on these bills.

  1. 622 clearly states that block grants will be provided to pay for the enforcement actions on Federal Lands. It seems highly likely that the current LE Rangers will simply become State employees and keep doing their same exact jobs. What will no longer be needed will be several layers of enforcement management in the NPS and BLM. Eliminating waste and increasing efficiency can be a good thing

    1. Hey Bill, thanks for commenting. I stand by my position. First, look at the context in which this bill was introduced. Rep. Chaffetz dropped it on the same day he introduced H.R. 621, a bill to sell over 3.3 million acres of public lands, and just a few days before the Cliven Bundy trial was set to start in Nevada. Rep. Chaffetz’s goal is to impair, not improve, administration and enforcement.

      Second, the bill itself would do just that. Federal law enforcement employees follow federal law and the public lands agencies develop cohesive policies to administer and protect their lands. They enforce laws against timber and mineral theft and vandalism of archeological sites, as well as laws to deal with people like Cliven Bundy who graze cattle without regard to the impact on the land or paying the grazing fees paid by so many others. What happens when you get a sheriff like Glenn Palmer in Grant County, Oregon, who believes the federal government has no authority in his county? That person, I fathom, will be less likely to enforce federal laws, to the detriment of the land itself and the broader national public in whose interest the federal agencies serve. More likely is that a local sheriff may simply use the funding to ease his or her own staffing issues, directing rangers to patrol a local highway rather than forests, parks, fishing streams, ORV parks, and other federal lands within the jurisdiction. Who’s to know?

      Third, you assume that local governments are more efficient than the federal. There is no support for that assumption, and I don’t accept it. In any event, the formula for calculating how much funding state and local jurisdictions would qualify for is complex, and assigns funds regardless of the priority of needs among the federal lands the agencies manage. Funding for law enforcement personnel in a critical area would be reduced because money is diverted to areas with more acreage but fewer needs. Moreover, the bill creates a cumbersome mechanism even for the federal agencies that lose their enforcement – the Interior Secretary would be in charge of grant program for the Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department. Doesn’t sound efficient to me.

      Bill, let’s agree to disagree on this. If the bill passes, I hope you’re right about its impact. But I doubt it, and will continue to oppose the bill strongly. All the best.

  2. This winter, anticipating HB 1349, I wrote a letter to the Board of IMBA (International Mountain Biking Assocation) urging them to not support this legislation. I never heard back so I’m not sure what their stance is. As a long-time MTBr, I do not support this legislation either.

    1. Maria, thanks for your comment. Here’s the IMBA position on mountain biking in wilderness areas, from the organization’s website:

      “Our public policy and advocacy efforts will focus on future Wilderness proposals and recommendations where mountain bike trail access could be lost, where viable alternative land protection designations are appropriate and where local IMBA chapters are present to perform volunteer trail stewardship and engage in advocacy efforts. IMBA will continue to respect both the Wilderness Act and the federal land agencies’ regulations that bicycles are not allowed in existing Wilderness areas. This 2016 position strategically aligns with our well-established and relevant mission to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences.”

      So, IMBA will comply with the prohibition on bikes in existing wilderness, but look to limit future wilderness designations in order to guarantee access for mountain bikes.

  3. I’m a hiker, sometimes equestrian and mountain biker and I have never “assaulted” the public land any more than I would assault Wilderness on my bicycle if I were allowed there. I am opposed to the blanket ban on bicycles in federal Wilderness for the very same reasons that everyone else (almost) would be opposed to a ban on foot travel in federal Wilderness: It makes no sense and it weakens the conservation community.

    You argue that bicycles should be excluded because they enjoy access (although not really) to such vast areas outside of Wilderness while “The National Wilderness Preservation System contains 109,127,689 acres of land, less than 5 percent of the total area of the United States.” Well, if Wilderness is so inconsequentially small, can I assume you’re in favor of closing it to all foot and horse traffic as well? No? Why is that?

    The bill (HR1349) doesn’t open all Wilderness trails to bicycles, it simply lifts the blanket exclusion so that the same agencies that manage the trails now can make case by case access decisions based on local circumstance. If you couldn’t bear the site of a bicycle at Image Lake, great, let’s keep them out. Meanwhile, you may want to check the contents of your own pack to make sure you’re not assaulting the Wilderness with anything that isn’t “primitive.”

    1. Hello TrailLover. I think you and I look at wilderness from different perspectives, both of which are captured in the Wilderness Act. On the one hand, the Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” that “retains its primeval character and influence.” On the other hand, the Act says wilderness also has “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” (although I personally don’t see mountain bikes as primitive).

      The definition of wilderness in the Act is both instrumental, that is, something for human benefit, and non-instrumental, or something with value beyond human use. The non-instrumental definition of wilderness resonates more for me. I believe wilderness has intrinsic value as wilderness. If, in order to retain its primeval character, access to humans and horses is rationed or limited, so be it. I include hikers and backpackers in that statement. To return to my example of Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Forest Service rations entry to that wilderness by issuing a limited number of permits. If I apply for and don’t get a permit, sure, I’ll be disappointed, but I believe minimizing human impact on the wilderness is more important. I’m putting the interests of wilderness ahead of my own.

      Further, I see this as a slippery slope. The bill would allow motorized and nonmotorized wheelchairs, strollers, wheelbarrows, and game carts into wilderness areas (and who knows where that leads in the future — Vespas? Harleys?). To get any of those things to a wilderness trailhead, you’re going to need a road. The concept of wilderness was founded on opposition to slicing up roadless areas as automobile use exploded in the early 20th century. Bob Marshall and the cofounders of the Wilderness Society expressly pointed to roads as undermining the remaining large roadless areas in the national forests, and they deplored the National Park Service’s proclivity to build roads through the most scenic areas of the parks.

      Yes, perhaps a case-by-case basis could address this issue. But I suspect that once you allow these wheeled transports in one wilderness, there will be enormous pressure to allow them in all wildernesses. That pressure will be accompanied by pressure to build roads to facilitate that access, and before you know it, the wilderness system will be eviscerated.

      Thanks for your comment. All the best.

      1. Vespas? Harleys? Hoverboards? Plasma transport beams? Strip mining? The legislation doesn’t lead to any of those things in the future unless you propose additional legislation to allow those things. There’s a reason the expression “slippery slope” is so closely associated with fallacy.

        It’s one thing if you don’t like bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and game carts (maybe I don’t like your fancy stove, titanium pack frame and your satellite navigation system), but it’s another thing entirely if you associate those items with other items that you don’t like (Harleys and Vespas) and think the legislation somehow allows them. It doesn’t.

        “Untrammeled” means “not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.” The land is no more trammeled by a bicycle than it is by foot or hoof. You don’t see a bicycle as “primitive” but you and I have probably never seen anyone in the Wilderness using “primitive” equipment. For you, the presence of a bicycle in any part of 110 million acres of Wilderness rubs you wrong. I get that. Do I get to decide which piece of your non-primitive equipment bothers me and ban you from 100% of the Wilderness?

        I don’t understand the “you’re going to need a road” argument at all. How do you think hikers and equestrians are currently getting to the trailhead? I’m pretty confident in asserting that bicyclists are less likely than all other trail users to need a road and a vehicle to reach a Wilderness boundary. But this whole point is silly.

        I disagree when you say that “you and I look at wilderness from different perspectives.” I suspect that I believe just as much as you do that “…minimizing human impact on the wilderness is more important [than my personal access]. I’m putting the interests of wilderness ahead of my own.” If my bicycle is excluded entirely from some parts of the Wilderness (the vast majority of it, undoubtedly), or if I miss the quota on permits, I’ll be disappointed too. But I won’t believe that the Wilderness was any less wild because someone else with a different bunch of equipment was there instead of me.

        Millions of cyclists would be thrilled to have additional incentive (as you do) to stand up with other conservationists against the pressures that truly threaten our Wilderness. Without that additional support, the Wilderness evisceration you decry can be only more likely.

  4. Thank you for keeping us informed on these critical legislative developments. I notice that my Senator is on the sponsoring committee for the resolution to end the Fair Chase rule, so I wrote to him. Probably won’t change his mind, but he now knows it’s not popular with everyone.

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