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Tsongas Questions Witnesses On Legislation That Threatens Ability To Protect 18 Million Acres Of Federal Land

Sep 16, 2016 09:25AM ● By Theresa Gilman


(Editor's Note: this content was provided by the Office of Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.)

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a legislative hearing to discuss H.R. 5780 the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, legislation that seeks to address land management issues across approximately 18 million acres of state, federal, and tribal lands in Utah.

Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (MA-3), the top Democrat on the Federal Lands Subcommittee, expressed her support for developing a bipartisan, comprehensive blueprint for these lands but emphasized that H.R. 5780 falls short of this goal. While the bill purports to protect millions of acres for conservation, it includes numerous loopholes, rolls back protections, and limits the authority of federal land managers entrusted with protecting treasured natural resources, supporting recreation, and promoting sustainable economic development.

Witnesses present at the hearing were: Ms. Rebecca Benally, Commissioner, San Juan County; Mr. Clif Koontz, Program Director, Ride With Respect; Mr. Neil Kornze, Director, Bureau of Land Management; Ms. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Co-Chairwoman, Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition; Mr. Dave Ure, Director, Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration; and Ms. Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief, National Forest System, U.S. Forest Service.

Below is the text of the Congresswoman’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery: 

“Nearly five years ago Chairman Bishop began the task of developing this bill. Along the way, he and his staff have conducted hundreds of meetings all over Utah. It is a worthy effort to develop a comprehensive blueprint for 18 million acres of land, roughly the size of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined, that are clearly so deeply cherished by all who live there, but this endeavor does not ultimately fulfill its potential of reaching a bipartisan solution. 

“Our nation’s public lands protect some of the places that have shaped and defined who we are as a people, and a country, and would not have been protected without support from the federal government. While necessarily resident in a particular state, states do not have the right to unilaterally set policy on these lands that belong to all Americans. Though state lands are often managed to maximize profitability, our nation’s public lands are managed for a wide range of activities and on behalf of all Americans. As stewards of these lands, we must work to find a balance between compelling yet sometimes competing interests and make sure that the federal government is a good neighbor to local communities. 

“Unfortunately, instead of looking for bipartisan policy solutions to protect treasured natural resources and wild areas, promote recreation, and support responsible economic development, the legislation before us today fails to strike the appropriate balance between these priorities. In fact, a closer examination of the so-called conservation provisions demonstrates a clear pattern of loopholes, rolled back protections, and an undermining of federal land management authority, all of which threaten the long-term conservation value of these areas.  One might say this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

“For example, Title 1 of the legislation purports to designate over 1.6 million acres of wilderness but contradicts the Wilderness Act by indefinitely allowing motorized vehicle use and construction of new water infrastructure. This is a violation of the Wilderness Act’s promise to preserve certain federal lands ‘for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.’  

“The national conservation areas and special management areas in titles 2 and 4 have loopholes that allow for thousands of miles of off-road vehicle routes, mining, drilling, deforestation projects, and livestock grazing, activities that are inherently inconsistent with federal land managers’ duty to simultaneously protect the natural, cultural, educational, and scientific resources. The National Conservation Area that is intended to protect Bears Ears, a Native American ancestral homeland, would allow motorized recreation, grazing in areas where it is currently prohibited, and block federal agencies from protecting the wilderness-quality of hundreds of thousands of acres of land. 

“This puts the region’s many Native American cultural and archaeological sites at risk of permanent destruction. 

“The watershed management areas created under section 3 claim to protect water quality but the bill also requires mandatory levels of grazing and snowmobile access, authorizes the construction of permanent roads, sets new requirements for water use, and allows for timber operations, severely limiting federal land managers’ ability to best protect precious water resources. 

“Even conservation designations that are more familiar to the average American, such as national parks, national monuments, and wild and scenic rivers are not exempt from harmful policies in this legislation. Sections of this bill related to these special areas are also ridden with loopholes that loosen rules for logging, allow motorized vehicle use, prohibit protections for air quality, and allow commercial activities without full and careful consideration of the impacts to natural resources, once again undermining their long-term conservation value to the American public. 

“All told, despite the many years of effort, this is not a legislative proposal that has a realistic chance of being passed by the Senate or signed into law by President Obama. Last month Grand County, in Eastern Utah, sent a letter to the Utah delegation expressing their opposition to the proposal, detailing nine significant departures from the recommendations they developed with the input of stakeholders, partners, and citizens. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote in an editorial, that ‘A negotiated settlement would have been better, but a Bears Ears monument declaration looks like the only viable solution at this point.’ 

“And perhaps most significantly, last week Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, announced in a press conference that he may soon bring forth his own proposal to the Obama Administration regarding the long term protection of the Bears Ears region, further indication that the legislation before us today has little  chance of successfully becoming law.

I would like to thank all of the witness for their participation, many of whom have traveled across the country to be with us today. I look forward to hearing your testimony."

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