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Slew of conservation, forest and grazing bills reintroduced

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

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Lawmakers yesterday reintroduced a handful of bills to bolster conservation of public lands, gird forests against wildfires and ensure timely permitting of grazing.The bills, which include measures to designate wilderness in Colorado and reauthorize a popular land-for-land program at the Bureau of Land Management, join a long list of land bills that have been reintroduced in the 113th Congress.The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to soon mark up a lands bill that it reported last Congress, most of which never received a floor vote. Few lands bills passed the 112th Congress, which was the first in decades not to designate any new wilderness or protect new public lands.While some of the lands bills are noncontroversial, they will compete for attention in a Congress that seeks trillions of dollars in debt reduction, comprehensive tax reform and other big-ticket legislation.The newly introduced bills include:

‘San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act’

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D) yesterday reintroduced a bill that would designate 33,000 acres as wilderness and restrict development and/or minerals development on another 28,000 acres in the state’s southwest corner.

S. 341, which was first introduced in 2009, would grant federal protection to a total of 61,000 acres in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties.

The three-part bill calls for adding more than 33,000 acres to the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas, as well as the new McKenna Peak wilderness area, and designating nearly 22,000 acres as special management areas that would limit development to already authorized activities, such as heli-skiing on Sheep Mountain.

The third component of the bill calls for withdrawing about 6,600 acres in the pristine Naturita Canyon from future minerals or mining claims, said Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Udall.

“The areas being protected are some of the most valuable big-game habitat we have here in Colorado,” said Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Durango, Colo. “We completely support this proposal.”

BLM and Forest Service officials last year said they largely backed the bill, with a few technical tweaks (E&E Daily, March 23, 2012).

On the House side, a key unknown is whether the bill will garner support from Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.). Tipton did not take a position on the bill last Congress, and his support would be key in a Republican-led House that last Congress came nowhere close to passing wilderness bills, due to concerns over restricting access.

Udall said yesterday the bill would protect the natural beauty and recreational values that draw thousands of visitors to southwest Colorado every year.

“Colorado’s scenic mountains and open spaces create jobs and form the very foundation of our thriving outdoor recreation economy,” he said. “We need to support these job creators by protecting and preserving the public lands that are critical to their businesses and our quality of life in Colorado.”

‘Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act’

Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) reintroduced a bill to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire new federal lands, establish easements on private lands and help communities boost recreation.

Fully funding the nearly 50-year-old law has been a top priority for conservation groups, sportsmen and the Obama administration for years, but that goal is difficult to achieve as Congress seeks trillions of dollars in deficit reduction.

Lawmakers were close last Congress to attaching language to a transportation package that would have provided $1.4 billion to LWCF over the next two years, but the provision was stripped by fiscally conservative House Republicans who argued the spending was wasteful at a time when federal agencies faced billion-dollar maintenance backlogs.

While authorized at $900 million, the fund has hovered at just above $300 million in recent years.

“This is a balanced bill to improve public access to our outdoor treasures without asking taxpayers for a dime,” Baucus said in a statement. “Montana’s outdoor heritage fuels our economy and our way of life — investing in it today will pay dividends in the long haul.”

While LWCF is paid for through royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling — which total several billions of dollars annually — those revenues are commonly diverted to the U.S. Treasury to be used for other programs.

The White House’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative made full funding for LWCF one of its top priorities. Land management officials say the fund is only used to purchase lands from willing sellers and helps consolidate inholdings, which can reduce overall management costs by simplifying jurisdiction.

Conservationists argue that the fund has helped improve recreational access, which generates billions of dollars to local economies.

The bill did not pass the Senate last Congress and will face an equally tough climb this time around. Its passage in the Republican-led House will be even more challenging.

Still, groups including the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy will be lobbying hard to get more moderate Republicans to sign on. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is also a co-sponsor.

Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act

Few programs enjoy as broad a spectrum of support as the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, which has expired but was nearly extended last year as part of Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) “Sportsmen’s Act of 2012.”

The new bill by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would renew a decade-old law that allows federal agencies to conserve sensitive habitats using proceeds from sales of lower-value federal lands.

In contrast to traditional federal land sales, in which proceeds go to the U.S. Treasury, FLTFA proceeds go to a special account used to acquire, from willing sellers, inholdings within or adjacent to federally designated areas under BLM, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service or Forest Service management.

Similar House legislation last Congress was sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) with co-sponsorship by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Heinrich, who was then a representative of New Mexico.

“FLTFA is an excellent model of public land management that achieves conservation and responsible access goals while spurring economic development,” Heinrich said in a statement.

More than 100 groups have endorsed the bill, including the National Rifle Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and many sportsmen’s, recreation and conservation groups.

The Obama administration has pushed strongly for an extension of FLTFA, which it said has allowed the sale of about 26,000 acres and the purchase of 18,000 acres since the law was passed in 2000. Before its expiration in July 2011, BLM had raised $115 million from land sales under FLTFA.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that last year’s version of the bill would have had an insignificant effect on federal spending.

‘Good Neighbor Forestry Act’

The bill by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) would allow the Forest Service and BLM to work more closely with state foresters to complete forest restoration projects that straddle federal-state jurisdictions.

S. 327, which Barrasso originally introduced in 2009, would expand “Good Neighbor Authority” from Utah and Colorado to all Western states. The program allows federal agencies to contract with state foresters to complete forest, rangeland and watershed health projects, Barrasso said.

“Forests in Wyoming and across the Intermountain West face serious threats, including forest fires and an unprecedented bark beetle epidemic,” Barrasso said in a statement. “This will ensure we have additional tools available for land managers to perform wildfire restoration, address bark beetles and improve wildlife habitat, regardless of boundary lines.”

Co-sponsors of the bill include Udall and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah, and Tim Johnson and John Thune of South Dakota.

Mary Wagner, associate chief of the Forest Service, last summer said she supported expansion of good neighbor authority, which, in addition to other collaborative forestry and stewardship programs, helped the agency restore 3.7 million acres in fiscal 2011 (E&ENews PM, July 20, 2012). Projects often involve thinning overstocked forest stands that are vulnerable to pests and can fuel severe wildfires.

Lawmakers last Congress also sought to expand good neighbor authority as part of a five-year extension to the farm bill.

‘Grazing Improvement Act of 2013’

The bill by Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) is a companion to legislation introduced last week by Barrasso that would double the length of grazing permits and instruct the BLM and Forest Service to issue routine permits more quickly (Greenwire, Feb. 8).

While backed strongly by the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the bill last year was opposed by environmentalists and failed to advance in the Senate.

Labrador’s bill passed the House last summer as part of an omnibus public lands package that died swiftly in the Senate.

Ranchers say the bill would eliminate much of the regulatory uncertainty involving livestock grazing on public lands, where permit renewals often face the specter of environmental lawsuits.

The bill last year was opposed by the Obama administration, which said it would cut the public out of the review process and hamstring its ability to care for public lands.

Reporter Scott Streater contributed.

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