America’s public lands could lose some of their hard-won protections under an appropriations bill passed Thursday night by the House of Representatives. The fiscal year 2004 Interior Department spending bill was saddled with several anti-environmental riders that could prove tremendously harmful to a variety of our wild lands.
“The riders that have been shoe-horned into this bill are shameless handouts to special interests,” said Randy Moorman, Legislative Research Associate at Earthjustice. “The House has compromised protections for lands belonging to all Americans, in order to benefit a powerful few.”
Damaging riders added by the Senate would limit public participation and interfere with our courts regarding logging projects in certain national forests in Alaska and Montana. One of these riders severely limits the amount of time that the public has to challenge harmful logging projects in the Tongass National Forest, the crown jewel of our national forest system. The Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, and home to the world’s largest population of grizzly bears and bald eagles.
Senator Conrad Burns’ (R-MT) rider attempts to interfere with the judicial review of logging projects in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest, in an area that includes occupied grizzly bear habitat and stands of old growth forest. This rider also seeks to waive important pollution protections of the Clean Water Act, gut the National Environmental Policy Act, and impede public involvement in logging projects within the extensive North Fork drainage of Montana’s Flathead National Forest for the next five years.
“The timber industry, with the help of Congress, is trying to put up a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign on courtrooms across the nation,” said Marty Hayden, Earthjustice Legislative Director. “It’s unconscionable that Congress would interfere with our independent judiciary for the benefit of private logging companies. These riders undermine the rights of all Americans to challenge environmentally-damaging projects on their public lands.”
Another amendment provides a boon to the cattle industry, which pays token amounts to graze cattle and other livestock on publicly-owned lands. The measure tacked on to the Interior bill seeks to mandate renewal of grazing permits that expire over the next five years without required environmental reviews and public input. As a result, harmful grazing practices will continue, causing loss of wildlife, polluted streams, and degraded grasslands and forests on our public lands.
“Poor grazing practices on public lands are turning clean, healthy streams into cesspools, and reducing once thriving grasslands and forests to barren wastelands,” said Moorman. “By eliminating environmental review and public participation in the management of public lands grazing, Congress is stating that the needs of cows and sheep should supercede all other public lands values.”
In a final blow to public lands protections, the House failed to retain a measure aimed at protecting national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas from a Bush Administration rule that could turn cow paths and jeep tracks into thousands of miles of bulldozed highways. The Bush Administration has revived a 137-year-old loophole to allow special interests to convert old paths and streambeds on our public lands into paved highways. Private interests could use this loophole to plow a spider web of roads through some of our most cherished public lands. A provision to protect some of America’s greatest wild places was added by the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, but was rejected by the joint House-Senate conference. House Republicans on the conference committee refused to fight to keep this important provision in the bill.
“The loophole created by the Bush Administration’s new rule could literally pave the way for the ruin of some of America’s most magnificent landscapes,” Moorman said. “Thousands of bogus road claims could be approved, threatening millions of acres of public lands. The House had a chance to block the bulldozers, and they blew it.”