A massive military policy bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, now awaiting approval by the Senate, contains something you might not expect: dozens of public-land measures that would redefine the use of hundreds of thousands of acres of wildland across America.
The bill, scheduled for a key procedural vote in the Senate on Thursday, designates nearly 250,000 acres of new wilderness in several Western states and places hundreds of thousands of additional acreage off-limits to drilling and mining. It also opens up more than 110,000 acres of wildlands as far away as Alaska for logging, oil and gas development, mining and infrastructure improvements.
It's the biggest wilderness-lands bill since 2009, the product of a rough compromise that manages to protect such treasures as the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana while opening up majestic stands of old-growth timber in Alaska's Tongass National Forest to the chain saw. All of this is under the umbrella of a bill to authorize $585 billion needed to keep the U.S. military in business — who wants to vote no?
Here's a look at a few of the provisions:
Buried thousands of feet beneath central Arizona, a few miles east of Phoenix, is what miners would consider hidden treasure of a natural sort: one of the greatest undeveloped copper deposits in the world.
Resolution Copper Mining, owned by a pair of foreign industrial conglomerates, would like to turn that deposit into a mine that could yield more than a billion pounds of copper per year and bring in billions of dollars in wages and tax revenue.
One big problem: The federal government owns the land around the deposit, in the Tonto National Forest.
Provisions in the military spending bill would facilitate a land swap between Resolution Copper and the federal government, in which the government receives 5,344 acres owned by the mining company in exchange for a 2,422-acre swath that contains the copper deposits.
Environmental and tribal groups are outraged by the proposed swap. They say the mine could threaten water sources and Native American cultural sites. A petition titled "Stop Apache Land Grab" on the White House website had almost 54,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
"We don't think we should be privatizing public land, especially land that's part of a national forest," and land that's important to indigenous groups, said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program for the Sierra Club in Washington.
Native American land concerns are also at play in the Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, in southeastern Alaska — though under a much different dynamic.
An Alaska Native corporation named Sealaska — which has more than 21,000 shareholders and represents the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes — is set to receive 70,075 of acres of forestland for logging, economic development, cultural preservation and other purposes.
The transfer would finally settle area tribal claims on land owned by the federal government since Congress' passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, which granted land to native groups and authorized the creation of moneymaking corporations such as Sealaska.
Sealaska would go on to become one of the region's most aggressive logging companies, clear-cutting swaths of forest as part of a logging boom that has since ended. Company officials say they are now careful stewards of the land and need new tracts not just for logging but for tourism development.
"It's a huge public giveaway to a private corporation," said David Beebe, vice president of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, an environmental group. Beebe said that further logging could threaten salmon and deer, adding that "the deer have been especially vulnerable in areas of the Tongass due to large-scale clear-cutting techniques."
Jaeleen Araujo, vice president and general counsel of Sealaska, said the land settlement had been in the works for 10 years and included tough negotiations with groups that have a stake in the treasured Alaskan wilderness.
"Everywhere you try to go to find land selections, you are raising the concerns of different interest groups or individuals or communities — it was a long process," she said, to get parcels that would "cause the least amount of controversy."
She said the company has clear-cut less than half of the timber it has harvested.
One of the most sizable land deals in the defense bill establishes a 208,160-acre Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area in Montana — the scenic area in northwestern Montana where the Rocky Mountains rise imposingly from the Great Plains. It adds 50,401 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 16,711 acres to the Scapegoat Wilderness in western Montana.
The North Fork of the Flathead River would also get extra protection, with 362,000 acres of federal land in the area removed from consideration for energy development.
Those new protections, however, are offset by protections lifted from lands in eastern Montana slated for potential coal development, said George Nickas of Wilderness Watch, an environmental group based in Missoula, Mont.
One provision in the defense bill would withdraw 12,036 acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management for use by a Navy weapons station in the western Mojave Desert near Ridgecrest.
Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which already consists of more than 1.1 million acres, is one of the Navy's largest land holdings and a key center for research and development.