Summer is finally here, but for those of us who fight to protect our nation's wildlife and natural heritage, this summer has been anything but restful. Special interests are once again using the appropriations process to advance their agenda, littering bills with anti-environmental riders when they should be passing a clean budget.
The Senate and House versions of the FY 2017 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill, which funds programs and agencies that conserve imperiled species and manage our national wildlife refuges and other public lands, are riddled with provisions that harm our lands and wildlife and threaten the very fabric of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) - our most successful wildlife conservation law.
These riders, which are substantive policy provisions intended to "ride" along with larger pieces of must-pass legislation, essentially "poison" the underlying bill, increasing the chances that the president will veto it, leading to more delay and gridlock in Congress and a delay in funding vital programs for America's wildlife.
The Senate version of the Interior appropriations bill includes language that blocks Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes, the sage-grouse and the lesser prairie-chicken. All are attempts to upend the science-based process used to make listing determinations and undermine the strength of the ESA. The legislation also spells trouble for wildlife that depend on our national wildlife refuges and national forests.
The bill includes a rider that mandates construction of a destructive road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which would destroy vital habitat and set a precedent that jeopardizes the integrity of our National Wildlife Refuge System and wildlands across the country. Another rider bars conservation measures for bears, wolves and other iconic carnivores on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, effectively preventing over 76 million acres of federal public lands from being managed in accordance with bedrock environmental laws. Yet another perpetuates harmful logging of ancient old-growth trees in America's largest rainforest, the Tongass National Forest. And that's not all: there is also language that weakens safeguards for all of our national forests.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Interior appropriations subcommittee and a strong conservation champion, condemned the harmful riders, saying the bill "takes dead aim at core environmental laws that have for decades protected the health of our communities, our families and our environment."
But the onslaught doesn't end with the Senate bill.
The House Doubles Down
Similar to the Senate version, the House bill also blocks ESA protections for the lesser prairie chicken and wolves and it launches an even more egregious attack on the greater sage-grouse: It blocks the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service from implementing historic land management plans intended to conserve sage-grouse and prevent the need for ESA protection. At the same time, it prevents the greater sage-grouse from being considered for ESA protection for at least a year. That one provision could send the sage-grouse into a downward spiral towards extinction. As if this weren't enough, the House bill also includes extensive language that would violate ESA requirements for salmon and other endangered fish in California's Bay-Delta estuary and stop the restoration of the San Joaquin River.
But there's even more to come. Today, the House will be taking up the Interior appropriations bill on the floor and will vote on dozens of additional amendments that attack our nation's wildlife and public lands. One proposed amendment would likely sound the death knell for the Mexican gray wolf, the rarest gray wolf in the world. Numerous others would strip ESA protections for other imperiled species, including a particularly horrendous amendment that would force the delisting of gray wolves nationwide, eliminating much-needed protections in places where wolves are just starting to re-enter the landscape or haven't yet returned. Yet another would block the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which recommends wilderness designation to permanently protect much of this crown jewel refuge, including the vital wildlife habitat of the coastal plain.
Underhanded attacks on our natural heritage unfortunately aren't anything we haven't seen before. But this year in particular it seems as though bad riders are popping up like mushrooms in every piece of major legislation moving through Congress. Conservation champions in Congress and our entire community must be ever vigilant and do everything possible to keep attacks on wildlife out of these bills. And we must never stop demanding a clean appropriations bill that fully funds federal agencies. Fighting for our air, lands, water and wildlife now is the only way to ensure a healthy planet for generations to come.