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Senate Takes Up Omnibus Lands Package

The Senate was expected to vote over the weekend on the $10 billion omnibus lands package that would close access to millions of acres of public lands to energy exploration and other activities. The bill originally was to have been voted on during the lame-duck session in November, but it was considered too hot to handle and pushed to the new Congress.

A cloture vote on the the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act (S.22), which includes 159 bills, was scheduled for Sunday (Jan. 11). "Collectively, the bill is one of the most sweeping conservation laws considered by the Senate in recent years. It will designate over two million acres of wilderness in nine different states," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are cosponsors of the lands package.

Sen Tom Coburn (R-OK), an opponent of the bill, called on Senate leaders to reconsider their decision to block debate and obstruct all amendments to the 1,300-page lands bill. "I'm disappointed the Senate Majority Leader has refused to allow senators the opportunity to improve, amend or eliminate any of the questionable provisions in his omnibus lands bill," he said.

"One provision in this bill, which the Majority Leader won't subject to amendment, would permanently ban access to an enormous natural gas field in Wyoming that would match the annual production of our two largest natural gas-producing states, Alaska and Texas," Coburn said.

Coburn was referring to the Wyoming Front Range, which has been steeped in controversy about whether producers should be allowed to drill for gas in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (see NGI, April 28, 2008; Feb. 18, 2008).

But Bingaman, speaking on the Senate floor, said the package had been developed with bipartisan support.

"The bills in this package have been developed on a bipartisan basis, last year with Senator Domenici, who was then the Ranking Member of the Energy Committee, and this year with Senator Murkowski. Almost all of the bills that were reported from our committee were on a unanimous vote. And we have made further modifications to some of the bills that were not reported unanimously in an effort to address remaining concerns."

Bingaman said the bills would establish three new units of the National Park System, 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 over 1,000 miles of new additions to the National Wild and Scenic River system, including several hundred miles in Wyoming dedicated to our late friend and colleague Craig Thomas, and would help protect 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range."

It also would designate four new national scenic or national historic trails, enlarge the boundaries of several existing units of the national park system and establish 10 new National Heritage Areas.

"This package incorporates 30 separate bills, that taken in their entirety, will have an unprecedented positive impact in helping address critical water resource needs on both the local and national level. It authorizes a range of studies to assist several communities conduct in-depth reviews of local water supplies and evaluate the best ways to meet future water challenges," Bingaman said.

"Finally, I should note that the bill will reduce the workload of water lawyers in the West by ratifying three extremely important water settlements in California, Nevada and New Mexico. These settlements -- involving Indian tribes, agricultural and municipal water users, environmental interests and the applicable states -- will resolve decades-old litigation.

Opponents said, "the Bingaman-Reid bill is full of bad provisions, but the worst are the ones that would prohibit oil and natural gas production on more than a million acres of federal land." According to Myron Ebell, director of energy policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, "tens of millions of acres of federal lands in the West have already been withdrawn from mineral and energy production. The new Congress should be opening some of these areas...Instead, faced with declining natural gas production and potential shortages in the near term, the first bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid wants the Senate to consider would take 1.2 million acres in Wyoming with high natural gas potential out of production."

In a warning sent in November, Britt Weygandt of the Western Business Roundtable said, "this package would create more than a million acres of wilderness, restrict the development of energy resources on various federal lands, and place hundreds of thousands of acres under new or enhanced federal control and further restrict many forms of use and access to public lands."

Not only that, the roundtable said the bill would lock in the Clinton administration-inspired "National Landscape Conservation System" within the Bureau of Land Management by giving federal land managers the ability to alter the long-standing multiple-use management philosophy of the agency in favor of one that stresses "conserve, protect, restore" above all other purposes (see NGI, Nov. 24, 2008).

States that would be most impacted by the legislation would be Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming, according to the roundtable.

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