Harry Reid’s Land Grab

Posted: Jan 10, 2009 10:53 AM
Harry Reid’s Land Grab

Update: The U.S. Senate passed the bill Sunday by a vote of 66-12.

It’s hard to pinpoint the worst part of the public lands legislation bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is calling up for an under-the-radar Sunday vote.

The 1200-page, pork-laden, $10 billion proposal locks up millions of acres of energy-rich property by designating it as environmentalist-friendly “federal wilderness” area where not even as much as a bicycle would be permitted to travel across the land. Many of these areas recently became available when the ban on domestic drilling in Western states expired last fall and the liberal left couldn’t muster the courage to keep it in place due to rising energy prices. Now Democratic leaders are using different legislative strategies to put a new kind of ban in place.

One Republican House staffer put it this way: “Reid is going to make it federal land so no one can touch it. He’s locking up the equivalent of ANWR.”

The bill, S.22 "Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009," would cordon off more than 3 million acres from energy leasing by restricting various areas as “federal wilderness” or “wild and scenic” river ways.

Since the price of gasoline has dropped and attention has diverted to other matters, such as President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, Leader Reid has made the land grab a priority and is calling members of the Senate back to Washington on Sunday to rush it through. And the bill, which is basically an omnibus compilation of pet projects and land seizures sponsored by individual House members and senators, has wide-ranging, bipartisan support since it helps many of them secure support from stakeholders in their home states and districts.

For example, one piece of the bill that has drawn the ire of the Wall Street Journal is a provision sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.). He’d like to make a robust, container shipping port located in his district’s Taunton River into a scenic tourist destination. This would have the liberally convenient side effect of killing a proposal to create a terminal to import liquefied natural gas.

Then, as to be expected in an omnibus bill, there’s the pork. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.) is requesting $461 million to legally settle a dispute over the San Joaquin River with the environmentalist group Natural Resources Defense Council. The money would be used for a water project that has the “minimum goal” of restoring 500 salmon to the river. (That’s nearly $1 million per fish!) Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D.) wants $5 million to fund a “Wolf Compensation and Prevention Program” to assist property owners use “non-lethal” measures to prohibit wolves from killing their livestock.

The lands bill chief opponent Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) argues it’s foolish to add acreage to the federal government’s responsibility when it can’t even properly manage treasured properties like the Statue of Liberty or National Mall appropriately. And, “we’re not exactly suffering from a shortage of wilderness,” his spokesman John Hart said in a conversation with Townhall.

Coburn has drafted 13 amendments to the bill, but Reid is not allowing him to offer a single one of them. One of them is a common-sense measure to just require that the current maintenance backlogs of government property be brought up to date.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) is urging his fellow Republicans to just skip the vote, as a means of opposing the bill and drawing attention to the fact it’s been more than 120 days since Reid allowed a GOP amendment to be accepted on the floor.

Several Republicans, however, have their own projects in the bill making it a difficult vote to skip. Republican Sen. John Barasso of Wyoming, who is typically a reliable conservative vote, has a provision tucked away in the bill to withdraw 1.2 million acres of state land from mineral leasing and energy exploration, where 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 331 million barrels of recoverable oil are estimated to exist.