Federal land deals full of thorny trade-offs

The defense spending bill makes space available for the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

One of the most ambitious public lands packages in years is speeding through Congress after being quietly attached to a must-pass bipartisan defense bill that cleared the House on Thursday.

The measure includes about 70 public lands projects, including the first national monument status for ice age fossil beds in Nevada, protection for about 275,000 acres of Montana’s rugged Rocky Mountain Front and a land swap that clears the way for a controversial southeastern Arizona copper mine.

Meant to be a compromise between environmental groups and business interests, the package would designate 245,000 acres as wilderness while simultaneously conveying more than 110,000 acres out of federal ownership for economic development, including mining, timber production and infrastructure improvements.

Some of the trade-offs drew the ire of environmentalists, who criticized what they viewed as federal give-aways to oil, gas and mining interests, particularly an underground copper mine on Arizona land prized by Native Americans. Others opposed expanded livestock grazing that could harm the habitat for the sage grouse and other sensitive species.


But overall, the package is supported by major environmental groups, who had grown increasingly frustrated over Congress’ failure to approve new conservation areas since Republicans won control of the House in 2010.

Tacking the package onto the National Defense Authorization Act is unorthodox, but not surprising given the short time remaining in the lame-duck session of Congress.

The 1,600-page defense bill — which also gives modest 1% pay raises to troops and sets military policy for fiscal 2015 — is among the final legislative measures expected to be approved by this Congress.

Nevertheless the maneuver drew scorching attacks from conservatives. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemned the “extreme land grab” and called the last-minute tactic a disservice to the military.

But those who have fought for expanded parks and open space welcomed the long-sought agreements.

The House overwhelmingly approved the bill 300 to 119, and the Senate was expected to quickly follow.

“This legislation will protect places taken right out of the pages of our history and science books,” said Clark Bunting, president of National Parks Conservation Assn., noting the expansion of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and three sites for the Manhattan Project National Historical Parks in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington state. “These are places that deserve to be preserved for all Americans to experience.”

Western lawmakers who have pushed for years to approve lands projects important to their regions seized on the opportunity to include them in the package.

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, spent nearly a decade trying unsuccessfully to help West Coast fishermen refinance high-interest federal loans used to buy vessels off the Washington, Oregon and Northern California coasts. The lands package provided an opening.

“It’s sort of the dysfunction of Congress at work — or not working,” said DeFazio, explaining that the House and Senate often passed many of the individual bills in a bipartisan way, only to have them stall in the other chamber. “I don’t have any trouble defending what’s in the package.”

As Congress scrambles to complete its work in the dwindling days of the lame-duck session, the massive defense bill, which has been approved annually for the last 50 years, was one of the final vehicles before lawmakers adjourn for the holidays.

Agreement over this year’s defense measure proved difficult as lawmakers wrestled with whether to provide authority for President Obama’s enhanced military campaign against Islamic State militants.

The bill also continued steep budget cuts previously approved by Congress under the so-called sequestration. At $585 billion, defense makes up almost half of the federal discretionary budget.

Troops will absorb many of the cutbacks, with lower housing allowances and a pay freeze for generals. Many will also face increasing co-payments for prescription drugs under the military healthcare system.

“We do not relish the idea of making these changes,” said a joint statement from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top senators on the Armed Services Committee, who said the alternatives were worse. “They are needed to avoid drastic reductions in military readiness that would potentially endanger the lives of our troops.”

Efforts by some lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), to include a broader war powers authorization for Obama’s military actions in Iraq and Syria were not expected to gain traction.

However, the bill extends the administration’s authority to continue arming Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State.

The military provisions led DeFazio to withdraw his support for the bill, even though it included a provision he fought for to reduce costs on fishermen’s loans. “It gives the president a blank check on his misbegotten Syria plan,” DeFazio said.

The defense measure provides $5 billion to fight Islamic State, including funds for U.S. and Iraqi troops, and approves Obama’s request for a new counter-terrorism partnership program, though at only one-third of the $4 billion he sought.

The military bill contains some of its own public lands provisions, including making space available for the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego and a provision by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) to add the names of 74 sailors from the U.S. destroyer Frank E. Evans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

But the separate lands package drew much of the scrutiny.

“It’s great that Congress is getting the Christmas spirit,” said Jennifer Krill, executive director of the environmental group Earthworks, which opposes the Arizona copper project. “But they shouldn’t be giving presents to foreign mining companies at the expense of the American people.”

Also included were projects important to congressional leaders, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the outgoing majority leader who is up for reelection in 2016.

He secured 22,650 acres for Nevada’s first national monument at Tule Springs, a fossil bed outside Las Vegas with the remains of “mammoths ... and sloths the size of sports cars,” according to advocates. An additional 300 acres were conveyed to the mining town of Elko for a motocross park.

Many items, however, enjoyed bipartisan support — and a few even had to do with military affairs.

The trail of the African American Buffalo Soldiers who trekked in the late 19th century from San Francisco’s Presidio to protect what is now the Sequoia and Yosemite national parks from poachers and loggers will be studied for a possible historical designation, thanks to a provision from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

A memorial to veterans of Desert Storm and Desert Shield was included for land in Washington.

Twitter: @lisamascaro