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.
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.
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.