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Public Land Policy (10-8-08)

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Public lands are federal, state, county or municipal areas that belongs to U.S. citizens. Public lands provide open space, clean water, habitat for plants and animals, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Public land exchanges include any transactions that transfer publicly owned land from one owner to another. Such transactions could involve trading public land for private land or the transfer of jurisdiction over land between different federal agencies. Public land exchanges often involve mining or fossil fuel rights and may include financial payments to compensate for trade value.

Recent Action

Senate Runs Out of Time to Pass Public Lands Omnibus
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced a new bill on September 26th that combines 53 additional public land measures with a 96-bill omnibus. The new bill would create more wilderness areas and authorize studies of potential parks, protected rivers and historical landmarks. The new omnibus also includes the re-authorization of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program and the Fossil Preservation Act.
Unfortunately, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) announced his intentions to block the legislation, leaving the fate of the bill rather dire. Although Senator Bingaman thinks he has enough votes to override a Coburn hold, there is probably not enough time for the Senate to complete all of these procedures before adjournment.

The interest of Congress in narrowing the gender gap in the sciences has some concerned.  By looking at the university level, the studies are ignoring those who say the gender gap begins much earlier with fewer girls taking an interest in the subject during high school. Women in the sciences are worried that Title IX quota systems could hurt them and the sciences by enforcing old stereotypes that women are not capable scientists or by hindering merit-based research by focusing on meeting quotas.  Tierney concluded that the federal government is investigating a problem that may not exist instead of working to increase the funding levels for the sciences. Regardless of the use of Title IX in the sciences, encouraging under-represented populations to pursue science careers is a worthy goal. (9/08)

Previous Action

House Passes Natural Resources Measure
On April 29, 2008, the House passed the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (S.2739) by a vote of 291 to 117. The Senate passed the measure earlier this year and it now moves to a final vote by Congress and then to the President for his signature to become law. The bill provides a myriad of specific provisions regarding land conveyances, park boundaries, studies, memorials, commissions and park protections. Two more general items of note for the geoscience community is a section on cooperative agreements for national park resource protection and the establishment of a network of advanced energy technology centers.

The cooperative agreements would be between the Secretary of the Interior and ” State, local, or tribal governments, other Federal agencies, other public entities, educational institutions, private nonprofit organizations, or participating private landowners” to protect natural resources within national parks. The agreements must demonstrate “science-based natural resource stewardship”.

The advanced energy technology centers were in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the new bill amends some of the details related to these centers. The Secretary of Energy will make grants to “nonprofit institutions, State and local governments, cooperative extension services, or institutions of higher education” to operate programs that “encourage demonstration and commercial application of advanced energy methods and technologies through education and outreach to building and industrial professionals, and to other individuals and organizations with an interest in efficient energy use.” (04/08)

The full text of the legislation is available from Thomas at:

Government Accountability Office Considers Moving the Forest Service
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has begun a study of whether the Forest Service should be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior (DOI). The 103 year old Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land and use to spend more time managing timber harvests. Its duties have changed and many see greater connections between the Forest Service and its sister agencies in DOI, which include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which manages 258 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service which manages 96 million acres and the National Park Service which manages 84 million acres.

“Today the evolution of our forests has gone away from production and more towards preservation” suggested Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) at a February 12th hearing at which he supported the move of the Forest Service from Agriculture to DOI. Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) supports the move and believes the transfer might help improve the Forest Service’s budget and align the land agencies better.

The GAO will be looking at two key issues – Would it be more efficient, effective and coordinated to move the Forest Service to DOI and can any money be saved by making the move. Stakeholders and others outside the government will also be considering whether such a move will mean any significant change in the Forest Service’s mission, particularly from harvesting and development to preservation. In addition, the Forest Service deals with mining requests on their lands, is currently revising their mining rules and will be part of any mining law reform, so the GAO may consider these factors in their study.

The study’s objectives are not as ambitious as former Representative Leon Panetta’s suggestion in 1991 to combine DOI, Agriculture and Department of Energy into one agency, a Department of Natural Resources. (03/08)

House Natural Resources Committee Passes Landscape Conservation
On March 12, the House Natural Resources Committee passed H.R. 2016, the National Landscape Conservation System Act (NLCS), by a vote of 24 to 13.  The four lead House sponsors of H.R. 2016, Representatives Mary Bono (R-CA), Rick Renzi (R-AZ), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Jim Moran (D-VA) are all co-chairs of an NLCS caucus.

The conservation system was originally established during the Clinton administration by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. NCLS formalizes the 26 million acre conservation system managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The text of the bill states “In order to conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations, there is established in the Bureau of Land Management the National Landscape Conservation System.”

The NCLS would be similar to the National Park Service based on the language in the bill, but managed by BLM and would initially consist of major conservation areas in 12 western states, including 15 national monuments, 13 national conservation areas, Steens Mountain area in Oregon, Headwaters Forest Reserve in northern California, 36 wild and scenic rivers, 148 wilderness areas, 4,264 miles of national trails, and more than 600 wilderness study areas. The measure would allow additional lands to be added to the NCLS.

While the Bush Administration supports the bill, committee Republicans led by Rob Bishop (R-UT), National Parks Subcommittee ranking member, are fearful that the “vaguely” worded legislation will have negative effects on adjacent landowners, limit grazing, recreation, natural resource access and other multi-use functions currently allowed on BLM lands.

Numerous amendments were offered during mark-up in an attempt to address those concerns, but none of the amendments were adopted. According to National Parks Subcommittee Chairman, Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a provision in the bill prevents management of the system beyond existing federal law.  The approved measure requires that any new lands for the conservation system be approved by Congress and also removes the authorization of appropriations for current lands, which are already funded from other sources.

A similar bill (S.1139) was introduced in the Senate in April 2007, and was been reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June 2007, but is still pending action in the full Senate. (03/08)

The full text of the legislation is available from Thomas: H.R. 2016 – and S.1139 –


In the United States, there are over 500 million acres of public lands—lands managed by the federal government, city governments, or state authorities. The Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Parks Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—agencies of the Department of the Interior—as well as the U.S. Forest Service—an agency of the Department of Agriculture—have jurisdiction over federal public lands. These lands include national parks, national forests, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national historic and scenic trails. The Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior holds 66 million acres of land in trust for American Indians and Alaskan natives.

The Department of the Interior has broad responsibility for administering many water and underwater resources. The Bureau of Reclamation manages 479 dams and 348 reservoirs, which provide water for over 30 million people. Numerous energy projects, too, operate on public lands; in all, energy projects on federal lands and offshore areas contribute about 30% of domestic energy production. These projects include oil (30% of total production), coal (45%), natural gas (38%), hydropower (17%), and geothermal (50%) production.

Acts of Congress designate new public lands. The President, however, has the authority to create national monuments on lands already under federal jurisdiction. Generally, state and federally managed public lands are open for recreational use. Recreation activities include bird watching, hiking, or hunting. Restrictions on these activities may be instated for conservation purposes.

Sources: Hearing testimony, NYTimes, Nevada Wilderness Coalition NEWS, The Salt Lake Tribune, Land Trust Alliance, and agency websites.

Contributed by Laura Bochner, 2008 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, Rachel Bleshman, 2006 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern, GAP staff

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 8, 2008.

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