Some Context on the Defense Bill Riders: Public Lands Losses Far Outweigh Any Wins

An elk hunter walks through a roadless area on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The roadless area pictured here will NOT be protected as Wilderness by the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (RMFHA). which is part of 449 pages worth of public lands riders attached to the $585 Billion National Defense Bill.  Rather, under the RMFHA and other Defense Bill Riders, public lands livestock grazing in this roadless area must continue, regardless of the ecological consequences.
An elk hunter walks through a roadless area on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The roadless area pictured here will NOT be protected as Wilderness by the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (RMFHA). which is part of 449 pages worth of public lands riders attached to the $585 Billion National Defense Bill. Rather, under the RMFHA and other Defense Bill Riders, public lands livestock grazing in this roadless area must continue, regardless of the ecological consequences.

You may have seen the news of a supposed “Historic” day for Wilderness in Montana and America’s public lands legacy. For example: here and here.

For those who care deeply about the future of America’s public lands legacy, it’s very important for everyone to look at this 449 page pork-filled public lands rider package in its entire context, and what that means not only for Montana, but for America’s entire public lands legacy.

For example, the Sierra Club clearly has stated: “We’re not happy about how this thing unfolded. The losses far outweigh the wins. We should not be privatizing federal lands at the behest of a mining company. We should not be privatizing public lands that are sacred to Native Americans.”

Why would the Sierra Club say that? I mean, the Sierra Club is about as mainstream – and respected – as any conservation group in the country. You mean it’s not just “fringe environmentalists” and “obstructions” and those who volunteer or work for “pretend” groups that are opposed to this pork-filled public lands package?  Well, read on and let’s look at some specifics.

There are a total of 6,397,000 unprotected Wilderness-eligible roadless acres in Montana.  This public lands rider would protect only 67,000 acres in Montana as Wilderness. That means that this “Historic” “new hope for Wilderness” would amount to protecting just 1% of the total Wilderness-eligible roadless acres in Montana as Wilderness.

Nationally, the number of Wilderness acres protected in this bill is even more pitiful. This ‘historic’ 449 page-long Public Lands rider attached to the National Defense Authorization Act would protect a whopping 0.2% of all remaining Wilderness-eligible roadless acres in the United States. Nothing says “Happy 50th Birthday Wilderness Act” than boldly protecting 0.2% of what remains, right?

Nothing says, “We ended Montana’s 33 year Wilderness protection drought by boldly protecting 1% of the remaining Wilderness-eligible roadless acres in the state,” right? Maybe in another 33 years we can get another 1% of the Wilderness-eligible roadless acres in Montana protected as Wilderness, right?

As you’ll see below, we must look at protecting 1% of the remaining Wilderness-eligible lands in Montana as Wilderness, and 0.2% nationally, in the context of what else is in the 449 page rider package.

Here are some more Montana Wilderness specifics. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act does designate 67,000 acres of this world-class habitat as Wilderness, but that’s a paltry sum of the Wilderness-eligible wildlands on the Rocky Mountain Front.

The RMFHA also locks-in taxpayer subsidized public lands grazing across the Front by stating, “The Secretary SHALL permit grazing” where it currently exists. Under existing law, grazing MAY be allowed to continue, but it’s not mandated that it MUST continue. As such, the RMFHA ties the hands of the Forest Service by mandating the government must keep a private, commercial enterprise operating on public lands into perpetuity, regardless of the ecological consequences.

Groups like the Montana Wilderness Association, who support the RMFHA – and have remained 100% silent as to the last-minute changes with the RMFHA that you’ll read about below – are also telling the public that an additional 208,160 acres of the Front have been “protected,” but that’s not really true.

Fact is, the RMFHA clearly preserves existing motorized use, grazing (now mandated to continue indefinitely) and logging on these 208,160 acres of public lands. However, what’s happened is that MWA and bill supporters have simply renamed these lands the “Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area,” a name that they made up, but doesn’t really mean anything. Click here for more info.

It’s clear in the bill that current on-the-ground management will be unchanged within this 208,160 acres under the RMFHA, except that now the existing grazing leases must continue into perpetuity, so one could more honestly argue that these supposedly 208,160 “protected” acres actually have LESS protection as a result of the RMFHA.

Also, keep in mind that the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was changed at the last minute – in secret, back room horse-trading process between Montana Democrat Sen Jon Tester and Republican Rep (Sen-elect) Steve Daines.

As the Montana Environmental Information Center points out in this blog post, Senator Tester and Rep Daines’ last minute change to the RMFHA now includes the release of  two Wilderness Study Areas near Otter Creek, which is nearly 500 miles away from the Rocky Mountain Front.  Plus they snuck into the RMFHA (again with no public input or process) a provision that will likely release another 14,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in eastern Montana near the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. These Wilderness Study Areas are about 350 miles from the Rocky Mountain Front.

Again, there were zero public meetings about this in Montana and Daines and Tester offered the public zero notice or opportunity to comment about their intent to release these public lands Wilderness Study Areas from their current protection. And clearly, Wilderness Study Areas 350 and 500 miles away from the Rocky Mountain Front have very little to do with a Rocky Mountain Front bill, other than Sen Tester and Rep Daines secretively used it as means to release eastern Montana Wilderness Study Areas for more development.

Also, according to MEIC, part of the public lands rider means that “Great Northern Properties gets its grubby hands on 112 million tons of coal adjacent to the Signal Peak mine. Great Northern has been wanting this coal for years as it knows developing the coal rights on Northern Cheyenne land would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop. The coal on the Northern Cheyenne reservation was omitted from the expansion of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1900. Now the Signal Peak coal mine that sends most of its coal overseas to Asian markets can further expand, continue to pollute water quality in the area, cause subsidence of surface owners property, and be responsible for hundreds of millions of additional tons of climate changing carbon dioxide pollution. Wilderness is not immune to the effects of climate change so should we sacrifice the climate for wilderness designation?”

MEIC has stated that, for reference, 112 million tons of coal is approximately 3 years worth of coal production by every single coal mine in Montana, one of America’s top producing coal states. MEIC has also figured out that all that additional coal just given away by Senator Tester and Senator Daines with zero public input or notice during secret “horse-trading” meetings in Washington DC would result in an extra 224 million tons of carbon pollution.

So honestly, the end result of this supposed “historic” day for Wilderness in Montana may be a complete wash. Hey, but at least David Letterman – who has given generously to the Montana Wilderness Association – gets his own private Deep Creek Wilderness protected right next to his sprawling ranch, right? And at least the Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society in Bozeman have those fundraising letters all set to mail out telling supporters about their “historic” Wilderness protection efforts in Montana.

The so-called “Grazing ‘Improvement” rider in the bill – as was pointed out by a work colleague/public lands policy expert – is a complete roll back of environmental law and public input into public lands grazing permit renewals. Essentially, public lands grazing permits would now be renewed regardless of a NEPA analysis, public land health conditions and regardless of the impact on wildlife, including endangered species.

“The only environmentally beneficial part of the Grazing Improvement Act — voluntary grazing permit retirement — was removed, making this bill a wholesale disaster,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “This bill would make it harder for government agencies to manage livestock grazing on public lands, and create new obstacles to restoring damaged habitats where livestock grazing is currently degrading the health of our public lands.” More info from a coalition of conservation groups is here.

Ironically, as the coalition conservation groups point out, and as Andy Kerr mentioned in the E&E article highlighted in a previous blog post, the Grazing “Improvement” Act all but ensures the US Fish and Wildlife Service will have to list greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act as it completely circumvents the current process of revising land use plans by the BLM and Forest Service. In addition, extending public lands grazing permits to 20 years will continue the fleecing of U.S. taxpayers. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that federal land management agencies lose $10 for every $1 paid in grazing fees.

The 449 page riders also includes a number of public lands giveaways and privatization schemes, in which politicians such as Sen Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen Reid (D-NV) clearly pulled some strings to help their campaign contributors.

The SE Arizona Land Exchange in the bill will give 2,400 acres of the Tonto Nation Forest – ancestral homeland of the Apache Tribe – to a foreign mining company and allow them to put in a huge copper mine on these sacred lands. The area contains Apache burial grounds, important medicinal plants, and irreplaceable ceremonial grounds and cultural sites.

Specifically, the mining corporation is Rio Tinto, a foreign corporation that also happens to co-own a uranium mine with the Iranian government!!

As you can see here, Rio Tinto formed a subsidiary called Resolution Copper that has fully acknowledged they will take this part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, put in a massive copper mine, and ship copper concentrate to China to be processed. Finally, all this would circumvent the normal process of permitting mines located on public land.

A package of bills dealing with Nevada will undermine the Wilderness Act by allowing a number of non-conforming uses, while 10,000 acres of public lands in Nevada currently managed by the BLM will be conveyed to the City of Yerington to facilitate mineral production.

In Alaska some of the public lands pork includes a transfer/giveaway of 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest (including some amazing, ecologically important old-growth forests) to a private logging corporation for the purpose of cutting down the old-growth forests that were formerly part of the Tongass National Forest, and likely shipping them to Japan and China. This blog has had two previous posts on this issue, one by a retired Forest Service economist on the folly of the Sealaska Bill.  The other previous Sealaska post was from two area biologists with the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game Habitat Division.

Another section of the rider extends an existing program to speed up and streamline processing of public lands oil and gas permits by the BLM (i.e. including the controversial practice of fracking, which currently produced around 280 billion gallons of wastewater in the U.S. annually).  Another part sets the oil and gas permit processing fee at a flat rate for 10 years (likely yet another costly taxpayer giveaway to Big Oil) and adjusts the interest rate paid on oil and gas royalty (another taxpayer giveaway to Big Oil?).

Don’t be fooled by the politicians, industry spokespeople or the people who work for multi-million dollar conservation organizations. The Sierra Club is right on the money when they clearly state, “The losses far outweigh the wins.”

What’s highlighted here is just sampling of some of the terrible riders that will undermine America’s public lands legacy that were included in this 449 page package. Once the public and public lands policy experts actually have time to review the entire bill you can bet there will be more pork-filled egregious examples of how Congress completely sold America’s public lands down the river to benefit their campaign contributors, and how a small handful of very well funded conservation groups remained silent and/or celebrated this “historic” package.a

Bottom Line: This public lands package attached as a rider to an unrelated National Defense Authorization Act will mean more public lands grazing, mining, oil and gas development and logging…and less public input, less protection for wildlife species and less science-based management overall.

“Strikes the right balance?” “Historic?” Look at the details and decide for yourself if this is how to preserve and protect America’s public lands legacy.

UPDATES:  Below are some of the many updates that have been coming in after citizens and organizations have actually had time to review the 449 pages of public lands riders. I’ll keep updating this original article as they come in. Thanks. – mk

What they didn’t tell you about the public lands riders

By Steve Charter, who ranches over coal that would be traded by the public lands proposal, and is the chair of Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council.

When U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester were celebrating the public lands package they sneaked into a defense bill, I wonder if they thought about the landowners and taxpayers they threw under the bus by doing it. Their package transfers valuable coal under my family’s ranch and our neighbors in the Bull Mountains to Great Northern Properties, a mega-corporation spun off from the railroad years ago, in exchange for other coal in southeastern Montana. Great Northern Properties gets a windfall by giving up low-quality coal that will almost certainly never be mined and gains high-quality coal next to mines with a high likelihood of development. It’s like trading a trailer house for a mansion. [Full Article Here]


47 Public Lands & Wilderness Groups Blast Riders in Defense Bill (Click here)


From Wilderness Watch:

Both sections designating new Wildernesses in Nevada have bad special provisions that would undermine the viability of both areas as Wilderness in the long term.  They include:

• Pine Forest Range Wilderness, Sec. 3064, p. 1366.  A 26,000-acre Wilderness.
– Buffer zone language
– Military overflights language
– Water rights language (no federally-reserved water rights for the Wilderness)
– Release of two Wilderness Study Areas (Blue Lakes and Alder Creek)
– Fish and wildlife language.  The State may continue to use aircraft (including helicopters) “to survey, capture, transplant, monitor, and provide water for wildlife in the Wilderness.” (presumably for guzzlers).  Plus the State or its designee may conduct wildlife management activities in Wilderness in accordance with a 2003 MOU between BLM and the State.

• Wovoka Wilderness, Sec. 3066, p. 1395. A 48,000-acre Wilderness.
– Buffer zone language
– Military overflights language
– Water rights language (no federally-reserved water rights for the Wilderness)
– Fish and wildlife language.  Allows the temporary and occasional use of motor vehicles and aircraft.  The State may continue to use aircraft (including helicopters) “to survey, capture, transplant, monitor, and provide water for wildlife in the Wilderness.” (presumably for guzzlers).  Plus the State or its designee may conduct wildlife management activities in Wilderness in accordance with a 1984 MOU.  Also contains explicit language allowing the construction of guzzlers (“Wildlife Water Development Projects”).

As we have seen from the history of wilderness bills, setting bad precedents for one area often means that these precedents get replicated and expanded in future wilderness bills.

13 thoughts on “Some Context on the Defense Bill Riders: Public Lands Losses Far Outweigh Any Wins”

  1. GREED, DOMINATION, CONQUEST and MANIPULATION of Nature is had at work to destroy our surroundings required to support the human species. As our Medieval European culture matures we lose our ability to understand how we are connected and dependent upon our surrounding. NATURE. All things are connected and what we do to our forests we do to ourselves! Urbanization is removing our ability to observe and understand the complexity of NATURE! Today the news was excited about recent scientific developments that will increase our ability to move to another planet when this planet can no longer support our species. GOOD LUCK! If we don’t change the way we manage and utilize our remaining forested lands, wealth and affluence may be meaningless!

    • Brian, for heaven’s sake! Medieval European mystics totally got the connection. Check out Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen.
      “greed domination conquest and manipulation of nature” has been a fact of human existence since we got out of the trees (or before, who knows). Spiritual traditions including Judaism and Christianity have been saying that for thousands of years.

      And it seems to me you gotta pick a lane with “complexity of nature” Either it’s too complex to understand, like you said, so we can’t trust models and therefore warnings about species extinctions based on models should not be considered seriously, or we do understand the complexity of Nature and it’s not really that complex.

  2. Maybe I am the only one fact checking your rants, but, did you read the bill? You sure lose credibility when you say that the rider is 1,600 pages. Nope, the full bill is about that, the “rider”, is only part of that as the name implies.

    • Hi Alayna. You’re right, turns out the public lands riders are only 449 pages in length, not 1,600. As this all unfolded I had heard a few news sources use the higher page number. I’ll happily make the correction. Thanks for pointing it out.

      Besides the number of pages that the public lands riders take up, do you have anything else to point out? I welcome your thoughts and input about these public lands riders, and what they mean for the future of America’s public lands and Wilderness legacy. Thanks.

  3. Brian, thank you for restating the simple, undeniable truths of this matter: greed, domination, conquest and manipulation of the natural world have been institutionalized within American government once flaunted openly as Manifest Destiny. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t decry their existence in government.

    The evolution and survival of our species hinges upon whether a majority of Americans defend these bitter truths as, “a fact of human existence,” or whether a majority of Americans successfully condemns their existence in government and its policy products. Likely the majority of thoughtful Americans concur — the amorality of Manifest Destiny is simply indefensible.

    Equally as indefensible, are these legislative QPQ machinations pitched as legislative products of “collaboration.” So “collaborative,” they can’t even pass Congressional votes on their own individual merits.

    Instead, these porcine legislative tapeworms wait patiently to get attached to their host legislation to infect the body politic, and rob the public of its essential natural resources, ecological integrity and spiritual nutrients.

    Thanks for this post Matthew. Been awhile since I visited last. I don’t know how you do it, but I am among the ranks of the deeply grateful for your amazing persistence.

  4. Yes, it would of really been falling if Wyden had attached his O&C plan. Biggest affect that I know of for Oregon is that its gets 4,000 thousands acres of land added to Cave’s National Monument. (But probably no monies for maintenance). Maybe some more roaded wilderness?

  5. There are many reasons that this mining land exchange bill has failed 12 previous times in Congress. It would privatize a National Forest recreation site called Oak Flat that President Eisenhower set aside in the 1950s (to guard it against mining!). The mining company that will receive our public land is owned by foreign corporations. And it’s a beautiful high desert place that is also sacred to San Carlos Apaches.

    Please see this short video for a look at what’s at stake:

  6. Matthew, thank you so much for this summary. I haven’t read the entire rider, but from my experience in legislative affairs that ended in 2009, this all sounds awfully familiar. All done in secret and behind the scenes even though hearings may have been held at some point, the final language always changes. I’ve been there. Sometimes you can make good things happen in that situation, but maybe the Ds thought this might be the best deal they could get before the Rs rule. I am so disappointed that two proposals I’m familiar with from years past are now in here–Sealaska and Resolution Copper. These alone are TERRIBLE for public lands and a TERRIBLE deal for American taxpayers. At least these should get the light of day before they inevitably become law. Thanks to everyone for day lighting this.


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