The Congress came back into session during the month of September and now it is gone until after the November election. Before rushing to the airport to get back home to campaign, Congress did take action on a number of bills of interest to us. Here is a quick update on the bills that achieved some key milestones in the legislative process for your information.
On September 12th the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a hearing on H.R. 5780 and received testimony from witnesses representing Utah interests as well as from the Obama Administration. We have written about this undertaking before, but the effort that went into pulling together this measure is simply unbelievable. Over the course of four years, more than 1200 meetings were held in Utah and yes, some in the Nation’s Capitol, in an effort to come to a consensus on how these federal lands in Utah should be managed for future generations. If you care to learn more about this legislation, please go to this link: www.UtahPLI.com.
On September 21, 2016, the House Natural Resources Committee reported out the bill to the full House on a vote of 21-13. There is opposition to the bill, including from the Obama Administration. Even so, we anticipate that the full House will consider the legislation sometime during the Lame Duck session. We are hopeful that companion legislation will soon be introduced in the Senate.
As we reported previously, the House of Representatives passed the Clear Creek legislation in July and the measure was sent to the Senate. The committee of jurisdiction, Senate Energy and Natural Resources, received the bill and held a hearing on the measure on September 22nd. This hearing was a key hurdle we needed to overcome in order to move the legislation forward to the full Senate. We are literally running out of time. To get this bill across the finish line, it has to be done during the Lame Duck session. The Director of the Bureau of Land Management did testify at the hearing and the Obama Administration has officially come out against the recreation portion of the bill, the very section we care about! The Director testified that while BLM supports the proposed Wilderness designation in the bill, it cannot support provisions that could increase the exposure of public lands users and employees to naturally occurring asbestos. This despite an independent risk assessment study commissioned by the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation that concluded management and operational strategies could be effectively employed in the area to allow OHV use without exposing the public to unacceptable risks.
The committee needs to report out the measure to the full Senate and it is impossible at this stage to know whether that will happen. If the Democrats on the committee object to the bill because of the Administration’s position, it might make it difficult to overcome such opposition with so few days remaining in this session of Congress. We will keep you posted.
This measure, introduced by Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Tim Walz (D-MN) passed the House of Representatives on September 26th. This is a measure that ARRA has strongly supported for a long time since it will facilitate the use of volunteers to maintain recreational trails in our National Forests. Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) has introduced companion legislation in the Senate. This legislation has strong bi-partisan support with 86 co-sponsors in the House and 23 co-sponsors in the Senate.
A study by the General Accountability Office showed that the Forest Service only has the personnel and resources to maintain one-quarter of the more than 157,000 miles of recreational trails in the National Forest System. Upwards to two-thirds of that total receive no maintenance at all. This bill would require the Forest Service to develop a national strategy to maximize the use of volunteers to improve the national trail system. All forms of recreation, including OHV recreation, stand to benefit and this effort is long overdue.
The issue of placing limits on presidential discretion on the designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906 continues to be a theme in this Congress. On September 22nd, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee reported out legislation authored by its Chair, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), that before a designation could take place it must first be specifically authorized by the Congress, and requires the concurrence of the state legislature where the proposed monument designation is located as well certification by the President that the designation is in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The matter now goes before the full Senate though it seems unlikely that any action can take place in the Lame Duck session. Even so, action by this committee is a powerful statement that the Congress in time may revise the scope of the Antiquities Act. S. 437 is just one of many approaches seeking to do just that.
Most of the focus during the September session was on how to fund the federal government with the start of the new fiscal year beginning October 1st. A lot of hand wringing took place over the funding of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Having a deadline looming always serves to motivate folks to find a solution, a way out of a dead end corner, and this proved to be the case in terms of the Flint problem. Funding to assist Flint with the replacement of lead contaminated water pipes will be included in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) thus freeing up objections to moving forward on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government until December 9th.
All this means, of course, the longer term funding of the federal government will be facing the Congress when it returns for the Lame Duck session. The prospect of a government shutdown can be pushed out for another 60 days or so.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access
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Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA) was formed to ensure that Americans are not arbitrarily denied the right to responsibly experience and enjoy the public lands that belong to the citizens of the United States. The members of ARRA, which include horseback riders, personal watercraft users, off-highway vehicle and snowmobile riders, and vacationing families, have joined together to provide input on decisions regarding land use designation, recreation opportunities, and preservation. Its members seek responsible consideration of competing activities, which are based on sound environmental principles.
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