The Senate confirmed the nomination of David Bernhardt to be the Secretary of the Department of the Interior on a vote of 56-41. Mr. Bernhardt had been acting Secretary since the first of the year. The Secretary’s celebration of his confirmation was short lived because four days later the Interior Department’s Acting Inspector General opened an investigation into possible conflicts of interest on the part of the Secretary. The investigation was launched based upon information provided by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). We have no idea how long the IG’s investigation will last, but at a minimum, it has to be a distraction for the new Secretary as he begins his tenure at Interior.
Meanwhile, the new Secretary has begun to reach out to key leaders on Capitol Hill to discuss policies and priorities affecting the management of federal public lands. He has been in touch with the new Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Department’s finances. Chairman Grijalva has already responded by inviting the Secretary to testify at a full committee hearing on May 15th. This hearing will provide an early indication on whether the Secretary and the Chairman can find “common ground” on pursuing policies to strengthen the management of our federal public lands.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
In January, the Land and Water Conservation Fund received permanent authorization when the Congress enacted the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. (Public Law 116-9). Even though authorization is now permanent, monies must still be appropriated on an annual basis in order to support the activities of the fund. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) now want to provide permanent funding at the level of $900 million per year, circumventing the regular appropriations process.
We understood the arguments in favor of providing permanent authorization of the fund, but we think it is inadvisable at this juncture to provide permanent funding at the $900 million level at a time when the federal government cannot take care of the lands it currently owns. Once the maintenance backlog has been reduced maybe it makes sense to devote more resources for the acquisition of additional land holdings, but certainly not now.
Senators Manchin and Gardner are effective advocates for the causes they support. We hope, however, that Congress takes a “go slow” approach when considering this legislation. Simply put, now is not the time to increase the federal burden when we aren’t taking proper care of those national parks and recreation areas currently under federal management.
Steens Mountain, Oregon
A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it failed to establish an environmental baseline prior to approving the Steens Mountain Travel Management Plan (TMP) and the Steens Mountain Comprehensive Recreation Plan (CRP). Those plans, among other things, allowed for OHV access to 36 miles of primitive routes. The court decision is a setback for OHV recreation in this very special recreation area.
The legislation establishing the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area had some conflicting language in terms of OHV access. On one hand the legislation prohibited the use of motorized vehicles “off road” while another provision authorizes use “on roads and trails.” Confusing at best.
The issue now goes back to BLM for follow-up action. Our assumption is that the agency will have to redo these plans in their entirety. This entire process could takes years to complete.
The idea of transferring the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to someplace west of the Mississippi River is still alive, but it may well be on live support. Frustration is growing among both Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill on the lack of specifics coming out of the Department of the Interior (DOI) in terms of its plans and timetable for the move, including the actual site for BLM’s new headquarters. Four states, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, have all been mentioned as possible locations.
Congress appropriated $14 million in FY 2019 as seed money for the reorganization effort. The Administration requested another $27.6 million in its budget submission for FY 2020 to continue the reorganization process. It is unclear at this juncture whether the Congress will provide those funds unless the Administration is more forthcoming on its plans for the reorganization.
The House Natural Resources Committee recently held a hearing on the reorganization plan but the details offered by the Administration’s witness were sketchy at best. The U. S. Geological Survey would most likely be moved to the Denver area where the agency already has a presence. And, during 2019, upwards to 40 BLM employees, approximately 10% of the headquarters staff, would be transferred west to a yet to be determined location. BLM employees would be asked to volunteer for the transfer.
Finally, the breaking news is that Acting BLM Director Brian Steed intends to leave his job in order to become the next Executive Director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources. BLM hasn’t had a permanent Director for over two years. Another change in management only brings more uncertainty to an agency already under stress.
The transportation reauthorization process has begun on Capitol Hill. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have started holding hearings and seeking input from their members as an outline is being mapped out for the components of the legislation. There is growing recognition that the country’s transportation infrastructure is aging and that something needs to be done to address this need.
President Trump and the Democratic leaders just announced that they intend to jointly pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure package. This is a major deal. Where there isn’t agreement is on how to finance this undertaking. Finding the revenue to pay for the program will eventually determine its size and scope. The Recreational Trail Programs is but a small item in this overall legislative effort, but it is a big issue for us, and we are keeping our eye on the ball when it comes to RTP renewal. More on this in the coming months.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access