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Good or Bad, Defense Spending Bill Will Impact America’s Wilderness

Waterfalls At Avalanche Lake

Although it easily passed the House, plenty of controversy still surrounds the National Defense Authorization Act.

As lawmakers continue to debate a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill, the fate of the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by the House of Representatives Dec. 4, hangs in the balance.

Although the defense spending bill easily passed the House with a bipartisan majority of 300 to 119, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hoped to advance the measure through a unanimous consent agreement, some senators raised concerns that the act contained earmarks that don’t relate to national defense, particularly by providing funding for national parks and wilderness areas.

The lands package in question would expand resource development in some states while also creating several new national parks.

Retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) staunchly opposes the provisions.

“I’m not holding it up. I’m just going to try to get amendments, try to fix it, talk about it,” Coburn said. “I’ll keep that stance ’til I’m through all the points I want to make about what a mess it is.”

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So what precisely does Coburn oppose? The lands package contained in the bill allows for the creation of new wilderness areas on the Rocky Mountain Front, as well as a ban on mining near Glacier National Park, and changes supporting oil exploration and grazing on federal land. All good things, right?

Although Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, as well as Montana Rep. Steve Daines, support the legislation, plenty of wilderness advocates object to the provisions.

Why would a wilderness advocate object to more wilderness? They and defenders of public land say they believe the land provisions in the defense spending bill include too many concessions to resource industries.

Archeologists and Native American tribes fear certain language in the bill would approve a controversial land exchange between the federal government and a copper-mining company that would put some Native American archaeological sites at risk. In fact, the company Resolution Copper Mining would have access to copper deposits located below 980 hectares of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, land that is not only sacred to local tribes, but also contains important archaeological sites.

“This is the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period, full stop,” John Welch, a former historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Beautiful Reflection of Snowy Mountain in Partially Frozen Lake in Alaska.

Despite the controversy, the bipartisan bill would represent the largest public lands package advanced by Congress in years. Almost 250,000 acres of wilderness would be designated in various Western states, and thousands of additional acres would be preserved from drilling and mining.

At the same time, however, the Bureau of Land Management would be allowed to expedite oil, gas and grazing permits, promote the Arizona copper mine and transfer federal timberlands to an Alaska native-owned corporation in the Tong National Forest, which would allow the clear-cutting of various old-growth trees.

Starting to sound a tad more questionable? Not for legislators in Montana, where the conservation community lauded the package. The land package would add 67,000 acres to the Big Sky Country’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and designate 208,000 acres along the Front as a conservation management area.

It would also release 14,000 acres of wilderness-study area for regular management by the Bureau of Land Management and ban future mining or drilling on 430,000 acres of public land directly west of Glacier National Park. Meanwhile, the bill would extend the life of Montana’s grazing permits from 10 to 20 years.

Congressional delegations in several other Western states also inserted their own state-specific public land language into the defense bill.

So is the bill good for the U.S. wilderness or not? As with most of what comes out of Washington, it all depends on who you talk to.

Is it worth allowing Native Americans to lose even more of their sacred lands to the further exploitation of resources? Should lands in Alaska, considered by many as America’s last great frontier, be handed over to logging interests? Are we, as a nation, justified in exploiting some natural areas in order to protect others? Or is this all just politics as usual, and all we can do is watch it happen?

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Good or Bad, Defense Spending Bill Will Impact America’s Wilderness