WASHINGTON -- Conservation groups are balking at several amendments offered to Senate legislation that would approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, amendments they say don't bode well for the rest of this congressional term.
Two amendments offered Wednesday drew concern from advocates for land preservation. The first, from Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would have put the Senate on record opposing the president's authority to designate new national monuments. Another, from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), would have withdrawn land designated as wilderness study areas from consideration if Congress does not move to declare them as wilderness within one year.
Both the amendments failed to get enough votes on Wednesday to pass. Amendments to the Keystone bill need 60 votes to win approval, which has prevented some of the more controversial of them from getting added to the bill.
But opponents say that their introduction alone is evidence of where the new Republican majority plans to steer policy. “It is somewhat of a mystery to me as how we are just a few weeks into this new Congress and we are already facing an all-out assault on our nation's national heritage,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said Wednesday in a call with reporters.
The attempt to block presidential designation of new national monuments, an authority granted in the 1906 Antiquities Act, drew particular ire from advocates who have been pushing for protections for new areas. President Barack Obama has designated 13 new monuments in his time in office, which many conservatives have criticized.
Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the mayor of Winters, California, said her city strongly supports efforts to get Obama to declare the Berryessa Snow Mountain region of northern California as a national monument. “I’m quite shocked we’re even having to have this discussion,” said Aguiar-Curry. “Having this designation would help our economy.” She estimated that making the region a national monument would draw increased tourism to the area, creating 180 new jobs in her town and bringing in $50 million over five years.
Conservation advocates also criticized the wilderness study amendment, arguing that it would impede federal agencies from undertaking research and conservation work in areas that have been identified as having wilderness characteristics. Making something a wilderness study area is a precursor step, meant to allow the Department of Interior to preserve the wilderness characteristics of an area while a congressional decision is pending about whether to protect the area permanently.
Murkowski argues that the designation has been misused. “Even though Congress hasn’t acted -- because it is Congress’ purview to do so -- the agencies manage as de facto wilderness,” said Murkowski in a floor speech this week. “We have to change this. Congress needs to reassert itself into this equation.”
Heinrich accused Republicans of “using Keystone as a Trojan horse for a lot of things that have not been debated or discussed in the public in a meaningful way.” He believes the public would respond negatively to these provisions. “I have an enormous amount of faith in the public. Once they are aware that it’s part of the Keystone agenda, my faith is in the public to make their voices heard with their individual senators,” he said.