Congress as Usual

The “Three Amigos” happy talk about a “historic compromise” is pure bunk

By Dave Skinner

Some of my faithful readers will be glad to know I had to scrape myself off the ceiling upon learning of the “historic compromise” on Montana public lands. You know, stuffed in 450 pages of public lands “riders,” 70 separate bills stabbed at the last minute onto the “must pass” Defense appropriations bill?

The defense riders (Title XXX – Natural Resources Related General Provisions) were not really compromise or bipartisan lovey-dovey, but rather the business-as-usual secret backroom dealing that has earned Congress our adoration.

The rider travesty started when John McCain (R-Arizona) decided to stuff a land swap onto the Defense bill. The land swap would mandate the trade of 5,200 acres of private Arizona scrub for 2,400 acres of Forest Service scrub that just happens to be on top of a really-promising copper deposit. Unsurprisingly, the proposed mine has been “embroiled” (reporter’s words, not mine) in the regulatory process for seven years so far. The swap will, critically, switch environmental oversight from federal to state regulators – which depending on your point of view is Paradise, or Armageddon.

McCain’s gambit paved the way for Senate lame-duckers to go nuts, and they did. All was either pet Republican stuff that short-timer Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) had kept bottled up in the Senate during his leadership; or pet Democrat items the Republican-controlled House would never consider; or just plain selfish local pork that didn’t deserve the light of day either way. I mean, “Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site?” Seriously?

In Nevada, Reid got 75,000 acres of permanent wilderness, traded for pro-mining provisions his esteemed Republican colleagues Dean Heller and Mark Amodei wanted, and the House had passed.

Nationally, there was good news for ranchers. Grazing permits will now have a 20-year lifespan rather than 10 years – meaning radical cow-hating Greens will only be able to torture ranchers half as often.

Overall, the defense riders seem a porky wash of stupid and smart stuff, but in Montana, Republican Congressman Steve Daines drove a frankly lame bargain. After all, the Democrats just got their butts whomped, not just in Montana but nationwide. Daines ran on a more jobs/less government platform, wins big, and before he’s sworn in, gives the guy he’s replacing a parting gift?

How, after keeping his lips welded shut on the Rocky Mountain Front wilderness, holding zero public meetings on the topic, could Daines suddenly find “common ground?”

And where’s the “common ground” with new Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) from Whitefish, who had been publicly opposed to writing off the gas potential in the North Fork, even though Daines had already “compromised.” Welcome to Congress, Ryan!

As far as I can see, there was way more Montana “give” than “get” – while the spin is “only” 67,000 acres of new big-W wilderness on the Rocky Mountain Front, the 203,000 acres of “conservation management area” are in fact wilderness that allows existing (and atrocious) roads.

In the “get” was a puny 30,000 acres of old wilderness study areas in Eastern Montana that failed wilderness review way back in the 1980s and should have been released to multiple use long ago. Why couldn’t we have a release of the wilderness study areas in the North Fork? Or at least a quarter million acres of failed, not-recommended WSA’s statewide – lands that have been held hostage for 30 years plus?

There’s also the coal “get,” a coal rights swap with the Northern Cheyenne which of course makes perfect sense to normal people. And who could oppose developing small hydropower projects on reclamation flows?

The defense rider deal wasn’t a complete loser. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) wasn’t able to jam in his bogus Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. And I will concede that President Barack Obama could have gone ahead and declared the Rocky Mountain Front a national monument at any time in the next two years.

But the “Three Amigos” happy talk about a “historic compromise” is pure bunk. The defense rider was an inappropriate means of passing these public lands laws. While I voted for Steve Daines, I did not vote for Congress as usual.