Summary of Hearings on Public Lands (11-30-06)
The Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met on November 16, 2006 to discuss two controversial land bills, the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006, S.3636, and the White Pine County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2006, S. 3772, which designate wilderness areas in exchange for the sale of federal lands to private developers.
The Washington County land bill, S.3636, and its related House bill, H.R.5769, have faced the greatest opposition from members of Congress. These bills, introduced by Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Representative Jim Matheson (D-UT) would sell off 25,000 acres to private developers in Washington County, UT, the fifth-fastest growing county in the nation, while preserving 220,000 acres, over half of which are already designated as wilderness area. Some Washington County citizens deem the sale necessary to accommodate the rapidly escalating population. However, conservationists see the sale as an extremely harmful action, which will only threaten various endangered species that live in the area with more development in an already overpopulated area.
The White Pine County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2006, S. 3772, introduced by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV), similarly trades the sale of 45,000 acres of federally-owned land for the designation of 545,000 acres to 13 wilderness areas in White Pine County. The Nevada acreage occurs in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the nation. Therefore, conservationists are less concerned that the land sale will result in immediate development. Furthermore, the area up for sale has been assessed by various stakeholders, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, and has been designated as an appropriate choice to divest.
Chairman Larry Craig (R-ID) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) did not provide introductory statements so as to provide ample time for the witnesses.
The first witness panel featured three senators who have been involved in the creation of these land bills. Senator Bennett defended the Utah land bill, S.3636, detailing the process of its creation in which all stakeholders were invited to give input over more than a two-year period. Bennett referenced a Nevada land bill, the 1998 Lincoln Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act, which used money from land sales and put it into schools, public lands and other in-state programs. He said that this bill set a precedent for how wilderness bills should be dealt with. "We have done our very best to stay in that historic precedent," stated Bennett.
Senator Ensign said that he worked tirelessly with all affected parties to produce the Nevada land bill, S.3772. He cautioned against any agreements with the Administration that sacrificed land sales to the private sector, but Ensign said that this bill should be an exception. It was created as a compromise, and it has resulted in a product that is "better than expected."
Senator Reid, also noted the long inclusive process that went into the creation of S. 3772. He described White Lands County as home to elk herds and the southernmost glaciers in the country, as well as other natural wonders which this bill seeks to preserve. Reid stated that the federal government owned 40 percent of air space and 94 percent of the land in White Pine County. He said Las Vegas' sprawl was, in fact, not a sprawl because, in his estimation, there exists "no land to sprawl on." "Is it asking too much in a county that's 95 percent federal land to put up a few thousand acres for private ownership? I don't think so," Reid said.
The second witness panel at the hearing included members of agencies within the Administration. Chad Calvert, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Land and Minerals Management of the Department of the Interior, testified on the Utah land bill, S.3636. He applauded the hard work done by the committee in creating the legislation, but noted areas which required further improvements. Calvert said that, in contrast to the proposed bill, the Administration supports the notion that "all taxpayers should receive some benefit from land sales," not simply citizens in Utah. He also noted that the bill affects the Shivwits Indian Tribe and therefore, urged the committee to "resolve any remaining issues with the Tribe regarding traditional access and other cultural and religious issues."
Calvert also expressed concern that the Bureau of Land Management has not yet identified 20,000 acres of the proposed sale as suitable for disposal and that of the high concentration of listed threatened or endangered species on BLM-managed land within Washington County, four of the ten listed species were endangered plants that depend on public land habitat to avoid extinction. Another concern of the Administration is that the 375,000 acres would be withdrawn from mining and mineral leasing laws and mineral materials laws. This would remove potential sand and gravel excavation, which is needed for local infrastructure development. For these reasons, Calvert suggested the bill needs additional work.
Joel Holtrop, Deputy Chief of National Forest System of the Forest Service of U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified that the Department does not oppose S.3636, but has some concerns with certain provisions. Holtrop reported that the Department objects to the authorization of the state's use of aircraft in wilderness areas for wildlife management purposes. Furthermore, the Department worries that Title II, designating wilderness areas, could make the areas more difficult to manage and that trail construction may exceed budgetary constraints.
Regarding both land bills, Holtrop echoed Calvert's concerns. "The Administration opposes any changes to current land sale authorities that do not ensure a significant portion of those proceeds are returned to the Treasury to benefit all taxpayers," he stated.
The third panel featured representatives from the areas affected by the bills. Brent Eldridge, chairman of the White Pine County Commission testified on S.2772 on behalf of the Commission and reported that the county supports the overall land bill concept, but has five critical issues with the bill.
First, Eldridge stressed that studies on water resources within the 1998 Lincoln County land bill should be included in S.3772 to address Western water concerns. Second, Eldridge asked that $30 million of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA) Capital Improvement and Conservation funds in the bill be designated for a Central Steptoe Valley Environmental Enhancement project for three projects -renovation of the Comins Lake Dam, expansion of water and waste treatment, and purchase of land including "sensitive habitat." Third, Eldridge expanded on the commission's concerns over the SNPLMA funds and asked that the designation of these funds to urban projects be reconsidered. Fourth, and "most controversial," is the designation of hundreds of acres to the Ely Shoshone Tribe. Eldridge stated that these acres should remain undeveloped for "environmental and jurisdictional" reasons, and therefore, should not be given to the tribe. Fifth, the commission requested that the provision eliminating mineral excavation, be adjusted to accommodate active mining claims and documented areas with mineral potential.
Alan Gardner, Washington County commissioner, stated that his county is "the fastest growing metropolitan planning organization in the United States" and that twelve endangered species reside in his area. He testified on the "grassroots" process from which S.3636 came, detailing a working group of all stakeholders that met and worked on the bill with the senators. Gardner stated that the funding from the sale of the land would allocate 5 percent to schools, 2 percent to county administrative costs, 8 percent to long-term water projects and 85 percent to a special conservation fund for conservation, preservation and maintenance of wilderness areas. He reported that the BLM had scrutinized the first parcel of 4300 acres and designated them appropriate for sale and that the agency would have a full year to examine the rest of the 20,000 acres before land sale would be authorized to take place.
The two concerns that the county has about the bill are the allotment of more wilderness in an area that already has 29 percent of its land under special designation and the closing of the Sawmill Road, a favorite choice for off-road vehicles. Gardner said that the adding to the number of acres of wilderness has been an especially "difficult pill for the county to swallow."
Jerry Greenberg, Vice-President of the Wilderness Society, testified on behalf of 3,600 Nevadans in White Pine County and 210,000 citizens in the United States. He said S.3772 was the outcome of five years of citizen efforts and expressed support for constraints on the land sale which require the BLM Land Use Planning process and environmental reviews to take place before the exchange can transpire. He recommended that the 45,000 acres up for sale be reduced to reflect the BLM process. However, Greenberg noted that the lands in the Steptoe Valley allocated for sale "contain little or no ecological value" and therefore, have been well chosen. He noted his support for land sale proceeds to go to Nevada conservation efforts as stated in S.3772.
Greenberg stated that concerns from the mining industry have been addressed and that "every effort has been made to exclude active mining areas from these proposals." He also supported the fair treatment of the Ely Shoshone Tribe and the addition of 3,500 acres of land to their trust. Though the society would like the Blue Mass/Kern Mountains and the Antelope Range included in the wilderness designation of this bill, Greenberg said, "S. 3772 would protect a significant amount of wilderness and make important additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System."
Peter Metcalf, President of Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd. in Salt Lake City, UT, testified in regard to S.3636 on behalf of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which he stated contributes $730 billion to the U.S. economy each year and supports 6.5 million jobs throughout the country. Metcalf reported that OIA opposes S.3636, because it fails to protect many deserving areas and instead, designates 210,000 acres, 120,000 of which are already part of Zion National Park, as wilderness. He warned against the "dangerous precedent" of selling federal lands owned by all Americans to fund local and federal government projects. Metcalf quoted a June 21st poll which reported that 89 percent of Utah citizens think that public hearings need to be held in Utah before the legislation is voted on in the nation's capital and noted that in Washington County, 40 letters-to-the- editor have been published opposing the bill. He called for the withdrawal of this legislation for more public review and improvements.
During the question and answer period, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) stated that the process of selling federal land circumvents the BLM process and challenged the group to consider what precedents these bills will set for the future of conservation legislation.
Full testimony of this hearing is available here.
Sources: Hearing testimony
Contributed by Rachel Bleshman, Fall AAPG/AGI 2006 Intern.
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Last updated on November 30, 2006