House approves gray wolf, mining and public land bills

Some of the fiercest debate Tuesday focused on the Bureau of Land Management's conservation and landscape rule.

May 01, 2024

The House on Tuesday passed several Republican-led natural resources bills amid sometimes fierce debate, underscoring the divide between the parties on public lands and endangered species.

The bills, which passed mostly along party lines, seek to overturn a new Bureau of Land Management rule elevating conservation as a formal use, delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and reverse a mining ban on sensitive federal lands in Minnesota.

The Republican-led House also approved H.R. 615, which would block the Interior and Agriculture departments from banning lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands.

Some of the fiercest debate Tuesday centered on H.R. 3397, sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis, which would require BLM to withdraw its conservation and landscape health rule that was finalized this month.

The House approved Curtis' bill 212 to 202, mostly along party lines. Three Democrats — Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington state — voted with Republicans to approve.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.

The final version of the rule places conservation on par with energy development, livestock grazing and other uses as a management priority and outlines a host of conservation policy tools and initiatives designed to “protect intact natural landscapes and restore degraded landscapes” in the face of a warming climate.

Republican lawmakers lined up to rip the new rule, using terms like “unconstitutional” and “illegal" to describe it.

Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) said that nothing less than the so-called Western way of life is at stake if the rule is allowed to take effect, echoing his Republican colleagues in saying the rule would block livestock grazing, mining and energy development.

“You may be asking: Why is a rule focused on conservation and landscape health so bad? Well, it wouldn’t be bad if that’s what it was really focused on. But the name is very misleading,” Westerman said. “This rule is a poorly concealed effort to lock up more lands to advance the Biden administration’s radical 30x30 agenda," he added, referring to the president's goal of conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with true conservation or improving the health of our landscapes.” Westerman said.

But Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and other Democrats vigorously defended the intent of the rule, which he said is to do nothing more than restore a balance to the management of BLM lands that critics say have favored the fossil fuel and other industries too often.

“I’ve participated in a lot of debates during my time in Congress; this has got to be one of the most confounding for me,” Neguse said.

He added: “Grazing is allowed under the rule; oil and gas development is allowed under the rule; conservation is allowed under the rule. If my colleagues don’t want conservation considered by the BLM, with respect to how these lands are managed, then they should just say so.

"Just be candid with the American people, that they don’t think these lands should be managed with conservation in mind at all."

Gray wolves

The House on Tuesday also approved, by just four votes, what likely is little more than a signal-sending bill that, if enacted, would remove Endangered Species Act protections from the gray wolf.

With the Biden administration saying it "strongly opposes" the legislation and the Senate controlled by Democrats, the bill approved on a mostly party line House vote of 209 to 205 appears unlikely to become law. But as an expression of conservative Western states' sentiment, H.R. 764 rings out loud and clear.

The bill needed all four yes votes from Democratic Reps. Yadira Caraveo of Colorado, along with Cuellar, Golden and Perez.

That’s partly due to the fact that Fitzpatrick and fellow Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Mike Garcia of California all voted against the measure.

"State and Tribal wildlife agencies have a proven record of successfully managing gray wolves," said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), the bill's sponsor, adding that she blamed "frivolous litigation" filed by "extremist groups" and supported by an "activist California judge" for the wolf's continued ESA listing.

Boebert dubbed the bill the "Trust the Science Act" as a pointed reminder that the Fish and Wildlife Service itself has proposed several times to delist the gray wolf.

Democrats countered that the House measure would put wolves at the mercy of state governments whose conservationist instincts can't be trusted.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) scolded his Republican colleagues for supporting a bill that he described as “sham legislation” that “ignores the science” of species protection.

"Once again, the Republican leadership has taken an opportunity to vilify an endangered species today, to sacrifice it to their precious industry groups," Huffman said.

While acknowledging that wolf populations have grown, Huffman added that "doesn't mean that we can just unfurl a banner and declare 'mission accomplished' — certainly not when folks who took wolves to the brink of extinction are ready to rev up the wolf-killing machine once again.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service lists the gray wolf in most of the United States as an endangered species and in Minnesota as threatened.

Congress in 2011 delisted the northern Rocky Mountains population in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon and a piece of northern Utah.

The agency has not provided a deadline for when it will make its overdue status determination for the species.

Mining withdrawal reversal

The House voted 212 to 203 to approve H.R. 3195, the “Superior National Forest Restoration Act,” from Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), which would reverse the Biden administration’s withdrawal of 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from mining and geothermal leasing for 20 years.

Democratic Reps. Golden and Perez once again crossed party lines to vote in favor of the measure.

In addition to reversing the land withdrawal in Minnesota, Stauber’s bill would require the Forest Service to review all mine plans of operation within the forest within 18 months and reinstate hardrock mining leases for Twin Metals Minnesota, which is pushing to mine for copper and nickel near Boundary Waters.

The Biden administration in 2022 withdrew the leases, citing concerns about contaminating the popular Boundary Waters recreation area and the surrounding ecosystem.

Stauber, who chairs the Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, argued the bill would not allow mining in the pristine Boundary Waters or the surrounding buffer zone.

Republicans that lined up to support the measure argued that barring mining in the region would only make the U.S. more reliant on foreign adversaries as demand grows for EVs and renewables.

Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California pushed back, arguing that the Biden administration canceled the leases based on sound science and warned Stauber’s bill would allow Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, to dig up minerals that are then shipped to China to be processed and sold in global markets. Porter previously co-sponsored a bill, H.R. 668, to permanently bar mining in the region.

“This piece of legislation would revoke key protections for a watershed that contains some of the purest, freshest water in the nation,” said Porter.

The House also approved the lead tackle and ammo bill, H.R. 615, by a vote of 214 to 201, with seven Democrats voting in support.

Sponsored by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), it would prohibit the Interior and Agriculture departments from banning the use of lead ammunition or tackle on any of the federal lands or waters under their jurisdiction.

The "Protecting Access for Hunters and Anglers Act of 2023" is aimed at still-evolving plans by the Fish and Wildlife Service to regulate the level of lead in ammunition or tackle that can be used on lands and waters at eight national wildlife refuges.

Westerman noted that the bill does not prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from regulating lead, but it would require the service demonstrate such a decision is “based on sound, site-specific science in coordination with state fish and wildlife agencies.”

He also cited studies that he said show lead-free hunting ammunition is 25 percent more expensive than lead-based ammo.

Banning lead ammunition and tackle, he said, “will result in decreased hunting and fishing participation for all but the wealthy.”

Democrats countered that the bill will actually result in limiting public access to hunters and anglers. Because lead harms wildlife, its continued use will eventually force the service to close wildlife refuges to such activities because hunting and fishing with lead equipment would conflict with the core conservation mission of the refuge.

“This legislation could actually reduce the areas open to our sports men and women, because it is a wrong-headed attempt to take away a commonsense tool for allowing sustainable hunting and fishing,” Huffman said.

He added: “Here’s the thing: There are ample alternatives to lead tackle and ammo, at virtually the same price. People already can and do use these alternatives in areas where lead is banned. No one is losing access due to lead bans, but our wildlife and habitats are safer because of them. It’s a win-win.”

Wittman strongly disagreed. "For those that said, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal, because you can substitute other materials, and it’s kind of the same price,’ [they] are people who have never gone hunting and fishing before,” he said. “They don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.”

More to come

The four bills highlight what Republican lawmakers have dubbed natural resources week in the House. Two other bills on that agenda are expected to be voted Wednesday.

The highlight is H.R. 6285, the "Alaska's Right to Produce Act.” It would reverse the Biden administration’s cancellation of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and block the Interior Department’s recently finalized rule to limit oil and gas leasing on 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

The other bill set for Wednesday, H.R. 2925, the “Mining Regulatory Clarity Act of 2023,” would allow companies to do things like store waste, construct buildings or process mined materials on lands that don’t contain economically valuable minerals.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) and Mary Peltola (D-Alaska).

Even if the bills were to get Senate traction, President Joe Biden would almost certainly veto them. The White House's statements of policy strongly opposed all four bills — though stop short of a veto threat.

Democrats echoed their opposition Tuesday.

“The entire House schedule this week misses the mark. It elevates right wing ideology over the actual needs of the American people,” Huffman said. “It tells us once again what the GOP has devolved to. It stands, unfortunately, for Guns, Oil and Polluters.”

By:  Scott Streater, Michael Doyle, Hannah Northey
Source: E&E Daily