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Omnibus Lands Bill Stuck in House

The $10-12 billion omnibus lands package, which would remove millions of acres of public lands as prospects for potential oil and natural gas development, appears to be stuck in the House over procedural issues.

After being held over from the last Congress the Senate easily passed the package of more than 160 lands bills (S. 22) in mid-January, and it was expected to quickly clear the House (see NGI, Jan. 19). The House Democratic leadership punted the measure to after the Presidents Day break. It is now faced with two procedural options, both of which have a downside.

It could bring up the bill under the abbreviated suspension calendar, which would require a two-thirds majority vote for the measure to pass. But the leadership doesn't believe it has enough votes for approval, said Britt Weygandt, executive director of the Western Business Roundtable, which opposes the lands package. The second option is for the Democratic leaders to go for a straight up-or-down vote, which would open up the bill to amendments and this "could cause them trouble," she said.

There is also "some concern about a provision in the bill that deals with carrying firearms in public parks," Weygandt said. The National Rifle Association has demanded an amendment clarifying that the lands bill does not add restrictions on carrying guns on public lands, the Idaho Statesman reported. If the bill is amended in the House, it would have to be returned to the Senate for a second vote, further delaying it.

"The bill certainly has hit some obstacles. Our assessment is that at the end of the day there certainly will be the votes to pass it," Weygandt said. She would prefer that the omnibus lands bill be sent back to committee for "additional review."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) last week said he hopes to bring the lands package to the floor before the April recess.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a staunch critic of the bill, would likely try to block it if it's sent back to the Senate. He has been particularly critical of a provision in the 3,000-plus page bill that would bar access to a large natural gas field in Wyoming. The field -- known as the Wyoming Range -- has been steeped in controversy about whether producers should be allowed to drill for gas in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (see NGI, Oct. 22, 2007).

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act would result in the addition of more than two million new acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System. It would establish three new units of the National Park System and enlarge more than a dozen existing areas, create a new National Monument and three new National Conservation Areas, and codify the Save America's Treasures and Preserve America historic preservation programs.

In addition, it will designate more than 1,000 miles of new additions to the National Wild and Scenic River system, would help protect 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range, and would add four new trails to the National Trails System for a combined addition of more than 2,800 miles of new trails.

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