Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Dancing on the Dark Side: Wyden Guts His Own National Recreation Area System Bill

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) had a visionary and bold bill that would establish a National Recreation Area System (NRAS). I strongly supported that legislative provision (Sec. 306 of S.2706; 114th) in a post to this Public Lands Blog.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-3rd-OR) sponsored an identical version in the House of Representatives (H.R.4790; 114th), which was cosponsored by Reps. Susan Bonamici (D-1st-OR) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-2nd-CO).

In that August 26, 2016 post, I heaped praise on the Wyden-Blumenauer bill that would have established generally strong conservation and management standards for new national recreation areas.

The Rogue River nears Hellgate would be included in Senators Wyden's and Merkley's proposed Rogue Canyon National Recreation Area. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

The Rogue River nears Hellgate would be included in Senators Wyden's and Merkley's proposed Rogue Canyon National Recreation Area. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

I support the widespread establishment of national recreation areas by Congress on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings as a 21st-Century replacement for Forest Service ranger districts and their BLM equivalents. Such NRAs would serve as an overarching congressional conservation designation that would generally elevate the conservation status of the lands, while emphasizing and managing compatible (and socially and economically valuable) recreation. Underlying this overarching designation would be the establishment and maintenance of wilderness and wild and scenic rivers, where appropriate.

Neither bill saw any progress in the 114th Congress.

In the current 115th Congress, Senator Wyden reintroduced his “Recreation Not Red-Tape Act” that again includes a NRAS provision (Sec. 305 of S.1633; 115th), again with no Senate cosponsors. An identical version was introduced in the House of Representatives (H.R.3400; 115th). Gone from this version are the progressive luminaries Blumenauer, Bonamici and Polis, as the sole House sponsor is now Rep. Rod Bishop (R-1st-UT).

Rep. Bishop is an existential threat to America’s public lands. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has named him as the #2 Public Lands Enemy (#1 in the House of Representatives) for “plotting to seize, dismantle, destroy and privatize America’s public lands.” Bishop has a League of Conservation Voters (LCV) lifetime (since 2003) congressional score of voting to protect the environment 2% of the time. In contrast, Wyden’s LCV lifetime (since 1981) congressional score is 90% (Blumenauer, Bonamici and Pollis: 95%, 98% and 90% respectively).

Of the 15 listed Public Lands Enemies, the top three hail from Utah and the state’s congressional delegation occupies fully one-third of the ignoble list. The only member of the state’s delegation not to be on the top 15 public lands enemies is Rep. Mia Love (D-4th-UT), though she is the sponsor of (H.R.6180; 114th Congress) officially called the “Funding Local Schools Act”, but CBD more accurately refers to it as “Public Lands Giveaway to Utah County Act”. We need to reconsider statehood for Utah. But, I digress.

Now I must heap scorn on the Wyden-Bishop bill. The section that would establish a National Recreation Area System has been gutted of any significant conservation value and would only change the color on the map, but not management on the ground.

A litmus test for any congressional conservation legislation pertaining to federal public lands is whether a piece of legislation withdraws those public lands from the application of the federal mining laws. Wyden-Blumenauer would have, Wyden-Bishop will not. The Wyden-Bishop version would allow national recreation areas to be strip-mined for coal, fracked for oil and gas, and/or doused with cyanide to obtain gold. Well, those certainly would provide unique recreational experiences.

My side-by-side subsection-by-subsection comparison of Wyden-Blumenauer and Wyden-Bishop shows a consistent undermining of conservation benefits. For examples:

• Wyden-Blumenauer states clear “purposes” (lands to be “conserved and managed”), while Wyden-Bishop is more vague (lands to be “managed” for recreational and “other” benefits.

• Wyden-Blumenauer anticipated wilderness, wild and scenic rivers and national trails being within NRAs, while Wyden-Bishop does not.

• Wyden-Blumenauer did not tamper with existing Forest Service NRAs, as they sometimes have stronger conservation provisions that the “system” bill would have, but Wyden-Bishop would weaken existing NRAs.

• Wyden-Blumenauer would have made the Forest Service and BLM evaluate potential NRAs recommended by a state’s governor, while Wyden-Bishop would require undue weight be given to counties (many of which are generally hostile to public lands conservation) and leave with the agencies the sole determination of what qualifies as a national recreation area to be designated by Congress.

• Wyden-Blumenauer provided that if there was a conflict with the NRAS law and other law (including, but not limited to the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act or any other statue or regulation), the most restrictive provision would apply. Wyden-Bishop says that an NRA will not affect other land or water management designations or a requirement applicable to such designation. Quite a weakening.

If enacted into law, the Wyden-Bishop National Recreation Area System provision would allow senators and members of Congress to introduce (and possibly pass) legislation establishing specific NRAs that do nothing substantial in the way of conserving of the natural, historical and cultural values that such nationally significant recreation relies. The Wyden-Bishop NRAS provision is a light green patina on a very small fig leaf.

The Wyden-Bishop National Recreation System legislative language is beyond useless and goes to being quite harmful. It would establish a system of faux national recreation areas in stark contrast to all of the NRAs previously established by Congress, including Wyden’s (and Blumenauer’s) Mount Hood National Recreation Area established by Congress in 2009. Wyden (with cosponsor Jeff Merkley [D-OR]) has legislation pending that would establish the nation’s first two BLM NRAs (Rogue Canyon and Molalla River). The proposed Oregon Wildlands Act (S.1548; 115th) is a very good bill (Wyden-Merkley), including the specific NRA language.

If you want to go deep into the weeds on NRAs, specifically the existing Oregon Dunes, Hells Canyon and Mount Hood, and the pending Rogue Canyon and Molalla, I commend to you my 2015 54-page Larch Occasional Paper 20.5, entitled 21st-Century National Recreation Areas for Oregon's National Forests and BLM Public Lands (soon to be a major motion picture!).

What can explain the language differences between Wyden-Blumenauer and Wyden-Bishop? While the Senate sponsor is the same, the House chief sponsor changed from some of greenest members of Congress to one of the brownest.

Wyden apparently valued the sponsorship of Republican Bishop enough to acquiesce to Bishop’s evisceration of the NRAS provision and throw his Democratic friends in the House of Representatives over the side.

In a further twist on Wyden’s starkly bipolar attitudes and actions toward national recreation areas, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might well recommend to Congress that it abolish the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (if President Trump doesn’t try to do so himself) and replace it with a national recreation area that allows “traditional uses” (abusive livestock grazing, mining, logging and off-road vehicles). In Zinke’s view, the Cascade-Siskiyou would fit very nicely into the Wyden-Bishop National Recreation Area System framework: mining allowed, no real conservation and a dramatic change of the color on the map, but an unimpressive change of management on the ground.

The National Recreation Area System provision is part of Wyden’s proposed “Recreation Not Red-Tape Act”. (Is it just me that thinks the hyphen is out of place as “red tape” is the alternative to recreation, and both are the modifiers of “Act”?)

“The RNR Act puts the engine for Oregon’s recreation economy into top gear, creating rural jobs and helping outdoor businesses thrive,” Wyden said. “Our bipartisan bill will break down barriers to the great outdoors, allowing more visitors to take advantage of the endless recreation experiences our public lands have to offer.” Emphasizing recreation on federal public lands and bipartisanship can be a good thing, but not if it comes at the expense of vital values.

Yes, but it would erect no barriers to mining in a National Recreation Area System.

Wyden claims the support for his RNR Act of 2017 by a range of recreation and conservation groups, including, but not limited to:

• American Alpine Club

• American Canoe Association

• American Rivers

• American Whitewater

• Association of Northwest Steelheaders

• Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

• Coalition for Oregon Land Trusts

• Friends of the Columbia River Gorge

• Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center

• Oregon Natural Desert Association

• Outdoor Alliance

• Outdoor Industry Association

• The Mazamas

The Wilderness Society

• Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

• Trout Unlimited

If you are a member of one or more of these organizations, you might want to ask them why they think the National Recreation Area System provision is worthwhile. Perhaps I’ve missed something.

From a conservation standpoint, the other provisions of proposed Recreation not Red-Tape Act, while of interest to the outdoor recreation industry, offer no conservation gains that could possibly  offset the now quite anti-conservation NRAS provision.

I am reminded when Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-1st-WI), now the speaker of the House of Representatives, in 2011 offered, according to Wyden’s website a “bipartisan plan to strengthen Medicare and expand health care choices for all.” Later Wyden, during the 2012 presidential election, distanced himself from his Wyden-Ryan plan, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke favorably of the bipartisan plan of his then vice-presidential running mate Ryan. That did not end well for Wyden and his dancing with the devil that goes by the name of Rod Bishop likely won’t either. Wyden may be saved by the Bishop’s recent announcement that he will retire from the House of Representatives at the end of 2020.

My recommendations:

• The Wyden-Bishop National Recreation Area System legislative language should die and never again see the light of day.

• The Wyden-Blumenauer National Recreation Area System legislative language should be reintroduced (with a few improvements).

• Pending the Wyden-Blumenauer language being enacted into law, the Wyden-Merkley language for the nation’s first two BLM national recreation areas should be enacted into law.

• Legislation to expand or establish additional specific (and good) national recreation areas in Oregon should be introduced in Congress (e.g. Ochoco Mountains, Smith River NRA additions, Oregon Redwoods, etc.).

Senators Wyden's and Merkley's proposed Molalla National Recreation Area in Clackamas County, Oregon. A segment of the Molalla River mainstem and its Table Rock Fork (not shown on map) would be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Source: Bureau of Land Management via Senator Ron Wyden.

Senators Wyden's and Merkley's proposed Molalla National Recreation Area in Clackamas County, Oregon. A segment of the Molalla River mainstem and its Table Rock Fork (not shown on map) would be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Source: Bureau of Land Management via Senator Ron Wyden.