Congress returned to Washington after the November 4th elections for the Lame Duck session. For those returning members who were defeated at the polls, this is not a happy time. Adding insult to injury is the fact that in the House all defeated and retiring members are required to vacate their offices by the end of November so that the office space can be prepared for the new members taking office in early January. So between votes on the House floor and committee sessions, there is a lot of packing to do in very little time. Since the Congress is still in session in December, those members without offices are housed in temporary space carved out of the House cafeteria.
I have never witnessed a Lame Duck session that is productive. I don’t think this one will be the exception. The list of “to do” legislation is long, but so little time. What will not happen is a general shutdown of the federal government. Republican leaders are making it pretty clear they aren’t going to repeat that mistake. Funding of the federal government expires on December 11th, so some sort of resolution needs to be reached before the Congress closes up shop for 2014. My best guess is that Congress will bite the bullet and simply fund the government through September, 2015 which means that the federal land agencies will probably receive flat funding for the rest of the fiscal year.
With term limits as well as retirements, a series of House committee chairmanships came up grabs for the 114th Congress. Three House committees are of particular interest to us: The House Natural Resources Committee; the House Agriculture Committee; and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
As we reported last month, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) will become the new Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He has already announced who he is placing in key staff positions on the committee and these are individuals with whom we have worked closely over a number of years. We are very much looking forward to working with Rep. Bishop and his team.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), will become the next chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. The Agriculture Committee is important to us because it has jurisdiction over the U.S. Forest Service. While Rep. Conaway doesn’t have a lot of public lands in his district, he has been a long time advocate of managing federal lands so they remain open to recreation as well as resource management.
Finally, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will have a new Chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Rep. Chaffetz brings a new sense of energy to the committee and has already demonstrated an ability to work with the Democrats on the committee. Of particular interest to us is the fact that Rep. Chaffetz will be establishing an Interior Oversight working group, possibly a subcommittee, to focus on the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, as well as the U.S. Forest Service. We believe Chairman Chaffetz will be coordinating closely with Chairmen Bishop and Conaway similar efforts.
Gridlock is a description that is generally given to the process of deciding how our public lands should be used and managed. An effort is underway in the State of Utah that could very well change gridlock into action and we think this holds great promise.
The Utah Public Lands Initiative is a collaborative process involving all types of stakeholders throughout the entire state. The brainchild of Rep. Rob Bishop, this effort involves federal, state, county and local government officials, environmentalists, the energy sector, motorized and non-motorized recreation enthusiasts as well hunting and fishing organizations. All have been involved in a lengthy collaborative process to see how Utah’s public lands should be managed for the benefit of the state and future generations. In a very targeted way, the focus has been done at the county level.
In late October, Daggett County was the first to announce that a tentative agreement had been reached on how public lands in that county should be used. Discussions are ongoing in six other counties. It is hoped that once this process is completed, the principles agreed upon in the seven counties will be the basis for legislation that the Utah congressional delegation will introduce in the Congress. Rep. Bishop hopes that this initiative will be used as a model for other states to follow by incorporating a collaborative process for reaching a consensus on land use policy for state and federal lands.
We have been following closely the Utah process for many months. Real progress is being made and we are hopeful we will see legislation on this front in the 114th Congress. Working together can produce results and in the area of public lands management, Utah just might be showing the way.
Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)