The Lame Duck that Wasn't Lame
I previously said that Lame Duck sessions historically have achieved very little in the way of legislative accomplishments. Well, the Lame Duck session for the 111th Congress proved to be the very opposite with the passage of the Bush tax cuts, unemployment benefit extensions, food safety legislation, the START treaty with Russia, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and medical benefits for 9/11 rescue workers. In other words, we saw a flurry of activity and a lot of bi-partisan cooperation.
What didn't happen was Harry Reid's idea of a major public lands bill, S. 303. More than 1,000 pages in length, it never made it out of the starting gates although it wasn't for the lack of trying on his part. Senator Reid wanted to cobble together more than 60 bills, some of which were never even reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Even Senator Jon Tester, D. Montana, tried to pull a fast one with his Montana wilderness legislation by attaching it to an omnibus appropriations measure, but that didn't get anywhere, either. We send a big thank you to the many ARRA members who contacted their Senators and said "no" to the passage of Senator Reid's massive bill.
Secretary Salazar Makes Sweeping Announcement/New BLM Wild Lands Policy
A December 23rd announcement by Secretary Salazar on a new Bureau of Land Management Wild Lands policy was an early Christmas present for those who want more wilderness designations. For those of us concerned about keeping access to public lands however, Secretary Salazar's announcement was a troubling sign that the Administration might just be preparing to plant more "keep out" signs on many of the public lands managed by the BLM. Exclusion rather than inclusion might be considered his order for the day.
Salazar's order basically short circuits the sole discretion of the Congress to designate wilderness areas by allowing the Bureau of Land Management to classify certain lands under its jurisdiction as "Lands with Wilderness Characteristics (LWCs)." In other words, such classification means that BLM may begin to manage these areas as if they were legislatively designated as "wilderness study areas (WSAs)" or even as "wilderness areas."
What is troubling about this new policy is that the Bureau of Land Management is mandated by an Act of Congress to manage for multiple use of these lands. The classification of LWCs will further restrict the multiple use concept of land management and will result, we believe, in further restrictions on how these lands can be used. A natural extension of this policy is restrictions on access.
We anticipate that the House Committee on Resources will conduct oversight hearings on this new policy. This will be particularly interesting since last year the Republicans on this committee uncovered secret plans by the Department of the Interior to designate new national monument areas in 14 western states. This embarrassing disclosure put Secretary Salazar and BLM officials on the defensive for many months and we suspect the December 23rd announcement was a "plan B" attempt to satisfy the appetites of environmentalists wanting more wilderness areas.
One thing the Lame Duck session didn't accomplish was the passage of permanent appropriations for FY2011. Rather, a continuing resolution will fund the government until March 4, 2011. This means the new Congress must face old appropriations issues before it can address the new ones for FY2012.
We think the order of the day in terms of the federal budget is cut, cut, cut. A "rescissions" package which eliminates funds previously authorized but unspent is being prepared for House action. For example, more than $800 million in stimulus funds remain unspent and the House intends to pull the plug on those funds.
At the very end of December, the White House announced that there would be a one week delay in sending the President's proposed FY12 budget to the Congress. The White House is saying that the Administration will be aggressive in recommending budget cuts. In keeping with this stance, President Obama has already ordered a salary freeze for non-military government employees. I guess this means that the staff at the Office of Management and Budget are still sharpening their pencils and making budget cuts to various federal agencies.
In terms of those federal land agencies like the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, we think the agencies will face static budgets at best with the real likelihood that some might experience budget reductions. How these cuts will affect recreation, it's hard to tell, but we will share more information as it becomes available to us.
Looking Forward, 2011
With a divided government in terms of party control, we expect some tough fights ahead over spending priorities. The Obama Administration will try to move its agenda forward by administrative action (like what we saw with Secretary Salazar's new Wild Lands Policy) and we think the Congress, especially the House of Representatives, will push back when it thinks such policies supersede congressional authority.
How issues like OHV access to public lands will fare is a tough call. I think we need to be very alert and aggressive in telling our story about how recreation on public lands benefits the American people in terms of a healthier lifestyle and those local communities whose economies rely heavily on recreation and tourism.
We are still waiting to see how the new Forest Service Management Rule addresses the issue of recreation and where the Administration ends up with recommendations coming out of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. I suspect in both cases the policy gurus are recalibrating those recommendations in anticipation of the changed political environment on Capitol Hill. ARRA will keep you informed as these issues unfold.
Happy New Year!
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access