U.S. House panel divides on party lines over how to better conserve public lands

Saint Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island, Glacier National Park, Montana.

By Jacob Fischler, Michigan Advance

In a preview of the arguments likely to be repeated as the Biden administration and Congress work toward conservation goals, Democrats on a U.S. House panel earlier this month outlined what they say is a need for aggressive action on climate.

But Republicans worried increased federal involvement would be counterproductive to conservation goals while hurting rural economies.

Democrats and most Republicans present at the first hearing Tuesday of the year for a House Natural Resources Subcommittee that oversees public lands agreed conservation was a worthy goal, but had differing visions of what increased conservation should look like.

Republicans voiced fears that added conservation efforts would bring more restrictive designations of public and private lands, making the management of forest fires more difficult and endangering livelihoods tied to ranching, mining and forestry.

Democrats, while arguing that more aggressive federal lands management was a necessary part of mitigating climate change, downplayed the scope of federal protections and said increased conservation could bring more — not fewer — jobs to rural communities.

Molly Cross, a scientist and climate change adaptation coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the changing climate affects the supply of clean air and water, wildlife protections and natural disasters, but could be mitigated by conservation.

“The scientific consensus is clear: The earth’s climate is changing and human activities, including fossil fuel emissions and land conversion, are the reason,” she said. “The good news is there are actions we can take.”

Dems decry ‘misinformation’

Members of the panel’s Democratic majority spent much of the morning responding to what full committee Chair Raúl Grijalva called “misinformation” about the scope and purpose of increased conservation designations.

“Despite what some have suggested, protecting lands is not about locking them up,” Grijalva (D-Ariz.), said. “We also need to acknowledge that merely extraction, whether it’s mining, oil, gas, or clearcutting… is not conservation, no matter how you dress it up.”

Republicans, including Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who was a witness at the hearing, said they favored “active conservation” but that even some existing federal laws made effective land management harder and hurt the environment.

Little made a distinction between what he called well-intentioned efforts at preservation—which he framed as completely restrictive of any human use that did more harm than good—and a widely popular “active conservation” approach that allows for multiple use of public lands, including grazing and forestry.

“The no-action approach generally does little more than incubate dangerous conditions, prevent active management and hurt rural communities,” Little said.

Several Republicans on the panel expressed willingness to work with Democrats on conservation goals, but said they opposed what they’d seen so far from the Biden administration and the Democratic-led House.

“We desperately need to do conservation, we desperately need to take care of what we’ve got and leave it in better hands for future generations,” committee ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) said.

“If you’re talking about that kind of action, I think you can get a lot of support across the aisle. But if you’re talking about truly locking stuff up in wilderness areas, as the definition of wilderness is, then it’s going to be hard for us to support that.”

Even if Democrats and Republicans disagree about what should be done, conservation is broadly popular with voters across the political spectrum, motivating members of both parties to be seen as supporting it, said Ellen Montgomery, the public lands director for the advocacy group Environment America.

“Any representative who’s not interested in protecting any public lands is clearly out of step with their constituents,” Montgomery said in an interview following the hearing. “I think folks on both sides of the aisle get that.”

House public lands bill

A broad public lands bill the House passed mostly along party lines last month went too far, subcommittee ranking Republican Russ Fulcher of Idaho, said, because it designated 1.9 million acres of wilderness and revoked 1.2 million acres from mineral production.

“If that is indicative of tomorrow’s policy on public lands, the future is bleak,” Fulcher said.

But Rep. Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat who was the lead sponsor of the public lands package, said most lands included in the administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. waters and lands by 2030 did not have to be designated wilderness, the government’s most restrictive category.

Wilderness would only account for a small percentage, she said, while most lands would still be available for multiple uses.

Little and congressional Republicans said such policies eliminated jobs in rural areas.

But DeGette and others disagreed. DeGette said it was “a false narrative that you can either protect public lands or have job creation.”

Cross told the panel that conservation at the scale that is needed would be an economic driver because it calls for “boots on the ground.”

California Democrat Katie Porter referenced a Boston University study that projected that $1 million of investment in oil and gas created about 8.4 jobs, but that the same spending on conservation would support 20.6 jobs.

Porter asked Little, who’d signed a letter to President Joe Biden expressing concerns about the administration’s pause of new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands, if he’d write a similar letter calling for more conservation and forest management investment. Little declined.

The hearing was scheduled to be the first for subcommittee Chair Joe Neguse, but the Boulder Democrat was back in his district following the deadly shooting last week. THE MORNING NEWSLETTER Subscribe now.

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