Interior Bill Carries Anti-Environmental Riders

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 12, 2001 (ENS) - Several anti-environmental riders have been attached to the 2002 Interior Appropriations bill this week, threatening national forests, parks and other public lands. Environmentalists are encouraged, however, by the funding levels outlined in the bill, which would significantly boost federal spending for land and wildlife conservation and other environmental programs.

A House-Senate conference committee approved the fiscal year 2002 Interior Appropriations bill by a unanimous vote on Thursday. The $19.1 billion bill, which heads to the House and Senate floors today for final passage, is the first of the 13 regular spending bills to be reported out of conference so far this year.

glacier

One of the glaciers that give Glacier Bay National Park its name (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Members of the conference committee added several measures, or riders, to the bill during final negotiations this week. Among the riders that could prove damaging to the environment is a measure that overrides two court decisions protecting Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.

In 1996, the National Park Service decided without preparing an environmental impact statement to boost the number of cruise ships allowed to enter Glacier Bay National Park. Conservation groups including the National Parks Conservation Association challenged that decision, and in August, a federal court ordered the number of cruise ships allowed to use the park to be reduced from 139 to 107, the pre-1996 level.

The court ordered the Park Service to complete an environmental impact statement before increasing the number of cruise ships allowed in the park.

But a rider proposed by Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, overturns that court decision, immediately boosting the cruise ship limit to 139 boats and maintaining the ships at that level for a minimum of two years.

whale

Some endangered humpback whales spend their summers in Glacier Bay. One humpback was killed this August by a collision with a cruise ship (Photo by Commander Richard Behn courtesy NOAA Corps)
"This is an outrageous disregard for the judicial process, the health of the park, and basic common sense," said Kevin Collins, director of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Decisions about the environmental impact of cruise ships should be made before more ships are allowed to enter the park, not after."

Collins noted that a 37 year old pregnant humpback whale - an endangered species - was struck and killed by a cruise ship in August. A criminal investigation of the collision is underway.

"One whale was already killed by a cruise ship this year," Collins said. "How many more deaths will it take to demonstrate the need for a thorough evaluation of the risks associated with cruise ships?"

Aside from collisions with marine mammals, cruise ships bring with them the risk of oil spills, increased air pollution, and disturbance of wildlife. Cruise companies in Alaska recently have been guilty of illegally dumping sewage, plastics, toxic chemicals, and oil as well as falsifying records to conceal violations.

clearcut

One rider attached to the Interior bill would allow the Forest Service to continue using outdated management plans that promote logging (Photo courtesy American Lands)
"The Stevens rider sacrifices park resources and endangered species in favor of an industry whose pollution record speaks for itself," said Sue Gunn, director of The Wilderness Society's national parks program. "This rider is a classic example of behind the scenes, Washington deal making at its worst. There's been no debate on this issue and no recorded vote."

Other riders added to the Interior Appropriations bill would permit overcutting in national forests by allowing the U.S. Forest Service to operate according to out of date forest plans. By precluding the use of current science or more suitable management practices, environmentalists charge that the rider will help shield harmful harvesting by big timber companies.

Another rider would exclude a provision on hardrock mining that would ensure environmental safeguards and financial assurances for cleanup, and the right to block the most damaging mines. By eliminating this provision, the rider paves the way for the Bush administration to weaken existing mining standards.

On the bright side, funding for the fiscal year 2002 Interior Appropriations bill is up notably from last year's level. The bill provides funding close to the level provided in last year's bill, and higher than the level proposed by the Bush administration.

mine

Another rider would bar a requirement for additional environmental safeguards for hardrock mines, like the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana (Three photos courtesy Bureau of Land Management)
Appropriators protected last year's new conservation spending category, the Conservation, Preservation and Infrastructure Improvement Trust Fund, which protects environmentally sensitive areas and wildlife habitat from sprawl and other threats. The bill also boosts funding for energy efficiency programs at the Department of Energy.

The bill provides a record $1.72 billion for federal and state land acquisition, land and wildlife conservation, coastal and ocean protection, overdue maintenance on federal lands, historic preservation, urban parks, forest conservation easements and payment in lieu of taxes.

"Around the nation, hundreds of recreational and greenspace projects are ready to proceed," said The Wilderness Society's Gunn. "Federal and state side projects improve the quality of life in neighborhoods, towns and cities by protecting open space in the face of unrelenting development, congestion and sprawl. So we thank Congress for enabling millions of Americans to continue to hike past magnificent scenery and historic sites, bike along seaside and lakeside trails, picnic and play ball at local parks, and splash in public pools."