Conservationists cite various justifications for going along with this new approach, but the gist of their argument is that current political realities won’t support the kind of wilderness legislation passed in the 1980s and 1990s, and that quid pro quo wilderness is the best we can expect. In this atmosphere, politicians normally identified as anti-wilderness ideologues – and who wield disproportionate power over public land issues – are taking on the wilderness mantle with alacrity, while still holding the line for the ranching, wise-use, mining, and development interests they represent.
The Steens Mountain [Oregon] Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-399).
The Steens Mountain project is considered by many to mark the beginning of the quid pro quo wilderness trend. In the late 1990s, a Clinton Administration proposal to create a national monument at southeast Oregon’s Steens Mountain prompted anti-monument interests, including Steens ranchers, to enter into negotiations with conservationists over alternative approaches to protecting the area.
Rather than simply outline a plan for the Steens landscape, the bill’s primary statement of purpose was to “maintain the cultural, economic, ecological, and social health of the Steens Mountain area.”
In the legislation that resulted, a Wilderness Area of about 170,000 acres was created – of which 97,000 acres are “cow-free” – within a larger Cooperative Management and Protection Area (CMPA). The CMPA was to be managed “to maintain and enhance cooperative and innovative management projects, programs, and agreements” between the various interests in the Steens.
Some ranchers with Steens inholdings who grazed their cattle on adjacent public lands were bought out with huge land trades that netted them more than five times the amount of land the public gained. The bill traded 104,000 acres of public land for 18,000 private acres. The Interior Department streamlined the appraisal process for the lands that were traded. The legislation also offered $5 million in cash payments to the ranchers to make them “economically whole” and made the Bureau of Land Management financially responsible for all water developments and fencing ranchers would need on their newly-acquired holdings. In short, the public paid a premium in land and cash for the crown jewel of the Steens.
Perhaps the most significant innovation in the Steens deal was the creation of the Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC), made up of representatives of various groups with an interest in the Steens, including ranchers, motorized recreationists, and environmentalists. The role of the SMAC was to oversee management of the area and issue recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some critics of the Steens deal had feared that the SMAC was a step toward local control of public lands, and according to some participants, it has in fact become a platform for local special interest groups to push for management concessions that are counter to Wilderness values.
A central problem with Steens implementation and the SMAC is that locals have interpreted the Steens legislation in such a way that the “innovations” and flexibility established for the CMPA would also apply to the Wilderness.
One conservationist member of the SMAC has said that in negotiating the Steens deal, environmentalists may have unwittingly “sent the message that if you’re a wilderness advocate you’re willing to consider just about anything that the enemies of wilderness … might put before you, and you won’t walk away.”
The Clark County [Nevada] Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002 (PL 107-282)
This bill, championed by Nevada Senators Reid and Ensign and supported by environmentalists and developers, was one increment in a continuing process of privatizing land for development in the Las Vegas Valley.
The centerpiece of the Clark County bill was the earmarking of about 22,000 acres of federal land in the Las Vegas Valley to be auctioned off to developers. Also included was a large, controversial land exchange, several public land giveaways, and the designation of 450,000 acres of wilderness.
The bill released 233,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and expressly declined to reserve federal water rights within the newly-established Wilderness. It also allowed the siting of transmission corridors in two WSAs, where such uses would normally not be allowed.
Among the most cynical aspects of the bill was creation of a National Conservation Area at Sloan Canyon, whose petroglyphs Senator Reid said were “in desperate need of protection,” while another provision granted a road right-ofway through part of the natural area to create a shortcut for commuters.
The Boulder- White Clouds
In May 2005, a compromise proposal emerged in Idaho for the Boulder and White Clouds Mountains in the center of the state. Republican Representative Mike Simpson introduced the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Proposal (CIEDRA), a plan that combines land giveaways, monetary grants, provisions to facilitate off-road vehicle use, and wilderness designation.
Part of the quid pro quo in the CIEDRA is to hand over, for free, 2,000 to 3,000 acres of federal land to Custer County, the State of Idaho, and towns in Custer and Blaine counties. These lands would be opened for second home development and other uses, with the goal of creating a local tax base on what is currently federal land.
Intense controversy focused on three parcels near the town of Stanley comprising 162 acres within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). In the 30-plus years since the SNRA was established, the public has invested more than $50 million on scenic easements in the SNRA. One of the parcels to be given away to the town of Stanley had been purchased for $341,000.
Like the Clark County bill, the Boulder-White Clouds proposal would prohibit any federal reservation of water rights in the wilderness.
The bill makes lavish concessions to motorized use in the Boulder and White Clouds mountains, establishing a “not net loss” policy for motorized trails such that if a trail is closed due to environmental damage, equivalent new mileage must be opened up elsewhere. Some wilderness advocates are dismayed that the bill would leave open an existing single-track motorcycle trail that lies between two of the proposed wilderness areas. On the other hand, the executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized-access advocacy group, stated that Simpson had done “a better job than anyone I’ve seen with a wilderness bill.”
The conservation groups working with Simpson on the proposal have straddled the line between support and opposition disavowing various provisions, while stating that they will continue to work to make it better. Over time, however, the proponents’ position on the land giveaways has changed from blanket opposition to a more nuanced approach that called for Simpson merely to spare the 162 acres within the SNRA.
Lindsay Slater, one-time aide to Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and a prime author of the Steens legislation, is now working for Simpson on the CIEDRA. “We think stand-alone wilderness is done,” Slater said. “The trend seems to be towards legislation based on compromise among the various interests.”
At a celebration following Simpson’s introduction of the CIEDRA, Idaho Conservation League executive director Rick Johnson said, “A lot of us got into this because of the land, because of the wildlife, but it’s actually about people. Mike Simpson taught that to me.”
Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act 012004 (PL 108-720). In late 2004 Congress passed an omnibus land and water bill, co-sponsored by all members of the Nevada delegation, that designated 768,000 acres of Wilderness in a rural, overwhelmingly federally-owned county north of Las Vegas.
The tradeoffs for wilderness protection included:
- the release of 245,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas;
- the granting, for free, of 256 miles of water pipeline rights-of-way on federal land to the Southern Nevada Water Authority to bring more water into Las Vegas from over the Lincoln County line, and an additional 192 miles of right-of-way to the County and its for-profit water company partner, Vidler Water – for a total of 448 miles;
- the conveyance of over 18,000 acres of federal land, for free, to Lincoln County for open space and to the State of Nevada to expand state parks;
- the disposal of 100,000 acres of federal land, to be relinquished from federal management and auctioned off to the highest bidder. This provision also effectively nullified a successful lawsuit brought by environmental groups pertaining to about 13,500 of these acres.
The Nevada environmental community was split over the Lincoln County legislation. Responding to the impacts of the non-wilderness provisions, the local Sierra Club chapter testified in opposition to the bill. The Nevada Wilderness Coalition testified against many of the non-wilderness provisions of the bill, but not the bill as a whole. Coalition members have defended their affiliation with the bill, opining that it would have passed whether or not any wilderness was included.
Yet, the wilderness provisions lent what would otherwise be a blatant land and water giveaway the cachet of compromise and environmental benefit. According to one long-time congressional staffer, that can make the difference between a bill that bogs down in controversy and one that sails through as a “win-win.” Even in the current Republican-dominated House and Senate, the staffer says, the bill might not have made it to the floor had there been unified opposition by environmentalists.