Monday, September 28, 2015

Mr T-Dawg Goes to Washington

I had the unusual opportunity this week to go to Washington to talk to the esteemed Utah congressional delegation about environmental issues, and it proved to be pretty interesting in a few different ways.

Ostensibly, I was there on behalf of the Outdoor Alliance to encourage our congressmen and senators to vote yay on a program that I hadn’t previously heard of called the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  This is very reasonable gig:  the US government receives royalties from the petroleum industry for leasing offshore areas for drilling, and a portion of those royalties is allocated towards preserving/protecting/enhancing lands that are in need of specific care, usually in the form of purchases.  Many times it’s used as “in fill” to buy up parcels that may otherwise be too small or too complicated for other federal/state agencies to protect/shore up.  One of the best examples of this that I have taken advantage of is the river put in/take out at BZ Corner on the White Salmon; when I first started paddling there it was private land and challenging to deal with; you had to hope that the proprietors would be there and be sober enough to take your money, parking was limited and a junk show, getting rafts into the gorge involved a high, complicated cable system, and the trail into the gorge was an erosion-fest.  The LWCF came in and created a model situation by recognizing the need, buying the land from the owner, creating an environment that has plenty of designated parking, a nice (and necessary) toilet, a well-hewn trail down to the river, and a clever slippery-rail-on-the-trail system for sliding rafts down to the river.  In fact, we “used” it just this summer when Ash and I took her niece there to show her one of the most beautiful little sections of river we know. 

The LWCF has been in place for 50 years and has had bipartisan support and is now up for renewal, and though it’s hard to imagine that it’s controversial, many of the Western states’ congressmen are on such a bender to eradicate federal control of lands that they are threatening to scuttle it.  Ironically, the money to be allocated – across the country, with many suitable sites in the East, the South, etc – has historically been $900M, but only about $350M has actually gone to the program, and the remainder has apparently gotten scuttled away into other programs, but still the Western folks don’t like it.  Regardless, the annual showdown over the US budget is happening now with a fairly high likelihood of another shutdown (this time caused by protest over Planned Parenthood, even though they are forbidden by law to use federal money for abortions…..c’mon people!).  So with that deadline looming the Outdoor Alliance rallied people to the Capitol to meet with their congressfolk to see if we could convince them to support the program.  Ironically – and we tried to point this out – part of the money also gets allocated to the states for them to utilize in the same way, so any opposition also inhibits states’ ability to take more control over their lands. 

Our Utah delegation consisted of myself and Julia Geisler and Nate Smith of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, and since we have all been intimately involved in the Mountain Accord process (to create a comprehensive management plan for the Wasatch) we wanted to also tell them to make sure to introduce/support the permanent protections should hopefully come out of the Mountain Accord.   Although Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons has rightly suggested that national monument designation is probably the best tool to accomplish the desired goals for the Wasatch,  the concept of any “national monument” is anathema to Utah’s delegation, who are inexplicably still furious over Clinton’s 1996 Escalante/Grand Staircase proclamation despite considerable evidence that it’s been a positive thing for that area (covered recently by Brian Maffly in the Salt Lake Tribune).  Even though national monuments are also able to be designated by Congress, the widely-held perception is that it’s only done by executive order and the congressional delegation doesn’t want to play into that, so the Mountain Accord is looking into other options.  The most likely scenario:  a “Conservation Management Area”, though Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty apparently recently freaked out at this possibility and is demanding that it be a “National Recreation Area – a less-protective designation, which is contrary to what The People spoke when the Mountain Accord had it's public comment period in the spring -  apparently so that he can have a better shot at finding a loophole to complete his pipe dream – and maintain his tenuous relevancy – to create interconnected ski resorts. 

Representative Jason Chaffetz was our first target, and – for better or worse – our contact was a woman who had been with the Congressman for…..a month.  “I just graduated with a degree in poli-sci from the U!”  Yikes.  

But to her credit, she traveled to the OA office because Congress was in a security lockdown due to the pope’s visit, she was very sharp, up to speed on both the LWCF and Mountain Accord, and assured us that she spoke to Chaffetz daily.  It’s our understanding that Chaffetz has agreed to be the one to introduce the Mountain Accord legislation, so it was important that we get in front of at least someone in his office. 

Our next meeting was a bit more fulfilling; we met with Representative Chris Stewart’s Senior Policy Advisor (Tim) and I assured him that as a Sugarhouser I had huge sway over a wide swath of voters in his district!  Stewart seems to be an interesting character:  he’s a former Air Force pilot, has written a bunch of novels and the definitive tale of kidnapped/rescued Elizabeth Smart, and….is a big climate change denier.  How smart people think/do dumb things is a question I find myself asking all-too often. 
Rep Steward is very proud of his books.  Ironically, his Elizabeth Smart cover was not included here. 
Tim is clearly a good politician himself; a big, gregarious, self-effacing guy who is easy to like and agree with….until you realize you don’t agree!  But he too was clearly well-versed in both LWCF and Mountain Accord, heard what we had to say, assured us that Rep Stewart was also well-aware of the importance of both programs, and introduced us to “Payment In Lieu of Taxes”, or PILT – the program that allocates federal dollars towards counties in the West that have almost no population and therefore no tax bases in addition to big chunks of (typically) BLM land but still have the expenses associated with county governance, so the federal government effectively subsidizes these counties.  I found it ironic that the same rural westerners who cry about the federal lands are also getting subsidized by the fed (not to mention the effective subsidy of the frozen-in-time cattle grazing fees of something like $2.50 per head per year); it reminds me of the battle cry of “Keep the gub’ment’s hands off my Medicare!”

The most critical member of the delegation couldn’t meet with us:  Rob Bishop is the chair of the House Natural Resources committee, and is notoriously vehement about giving extractive industries free reign and very suspicious of any sort of protection, and he howls – and makes headlines with his howls – at Obama’s recent national monument and wilderness designations.  He also has created something called the “Public Lands Initiative”(or PLI) that effectively means “Let Private Companies Drill As Much As They Possibly Can On All Public Lands in Eastern Utah Regardless of Location or Impact” (not as good of an acronym), and apparently he has expressed interest in tying this pet initiative – which apparently is losing support as the boom and bust oil and gas industry is now in its most-recent “bust” phase – to the Mountain Accord deal, even though they are so different that they could be in different states.  We encouraged Tim to try to influence Bishop’s office to convince him that this would be a bad idea.

Our last meeting was with a couple of the venerable Orrin Hatch’s legislative assistants.  Another politician-in-waiting, Ed Cox is also a friendly sort who endeavors to create a good connection and assure you that he is one of us.  He too was well aware of the LWCF and Mountain Accord, and said that the “pragmatic” Senator Hatch would like to see some compromises made in terms of divvying up the LCWF wealth, and/or have a tie-in to the PILT program.  This led to a discussion about Utah’s state leadership and their efforts to “take back their lands” from the federal government; he felt that this was a fruitless endeavor (as did Rep Stewart’s guy Tim):  not only were those lands never the states’ in the first place (they were public lands before statehood) and it’s unconstitutional, and it’s unfortunate that Utah has allocated $14M to file a lawsuit against the Fed for this reason. 
It was somewhat encouraging to see that all the reps and Hatch had big glorious photos of Utah's natural landscape as the most prominent art in their offices.   
That said, these guys are bound and determined to chip away (and rail against) federal lands due to their perception of woeful mismanagement by the federal agencies, mostly the BLM.  He started talking about harvesting the zillions of acres of pine bark beetle-killed timber in Utah that was simply a fire hazard.  Really?  Where, pray tell, are these vast groves of beetle-kill forests?  It’s happening for sure, but he made it sound like all of Utah’s trees were “ready to be harvested”, and then – disturblingly – he started talking about other natural resources to be “harvested”: oil, gas, etc.   and how much better the state could do at administering the lands.  I pointed out to him that the state’s own state parks were equally  - or worse – poorly funded/managed than federal lands, and how could they expect to do any better?  By “harvesting”, naturally.  He railed about how pinyon junipers were the scourge of public lands (which I am dubious about; they native to our desert) and then shocked us by talking about how – in the context of the Mountain Accord – the “environmental community always get what they want, and they have the ‘currency to spend’.” I couldn’t resist this bait and called him out on it:  actually, in the Mountain Accord there are many folks who are saying that the ski resorts are the ones who “always get what they want”, and if indeed a train and/or tunnel ends up in the Cottonwood Canyons, not only will it be a huge give by the enviro community it’ll also be a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-subsidized project (“oh, but not all of that would come from the state” – ah right, more federal meddling in the states!) to essentially benefit four businesses!  I began to realize that our time was running out and these arguments could go on for days and no one would be convinced. 

We closed by asking him to try to exert some influence on Rep Bishop to not tie his Vernal lands deal to the potential Mountain Accord legislation, and he replied that “Congressman Bishop doesn’t like the Senate too much”, which again got my eyebrows up.  Does Congressman Bishop like anything, or anyone?  Baseball!  He really likes baseball.  Hmm.  Not very encouraging. 

So this week – as the nation bites its nails watching Congress posture about the 2016 budget and threaten to shut down the government over the Planned Parenthood red herring (but will very likely create a “Continuing Resolution” to address it again in December) we’ll be watching to see if they will include the LWCF. 

As everyone knows, the pope gave an inspiring speech to Congress, and while we were unable to get tickets to get onto the Capitol steps for the huge throng watching the pope on the jumbotron, they had smaller jumbotrons on the mall:

One of our Alliance compatriots get tickets to the steps and said that after giving the speech in English, he then spontaneously bolted out to a balcony and hollered “Buenas Dias” to the crowd, which roared its approval.  Good pope!

We were able to fit in a 45 minute tour of the Capitol, which included one celebrity sighting:  presidential aspirant and rabid right-winger Rick Santorum (do yourself a favor and google “Santorum”). 
a little blurry...shot from the hip. 
In the Capitol each state has the opportunity to have a statue of a citizen, and it’s up to the state to decide who it is:
the priest who the pope canonized last week

Rosa Parks, the most recent addition
Utah's statue:  Of course, Brigham Young
Thanks to the Outdoor Alliance for sponsoring our trip and rallying a great crew of folks to DC, and to Julia and Nate for being good partners in lighting some of these guys up.  On one hand the Utah delegation is going to be as un-eviro-oriented as they are going to be and no amount of “lobbying” will do anything to change their views, but it’s also good to know that we can at least get close enough to them to make them realize that at least some of their constituents are taking careful note of their actions. 
Ready To Lobby!   

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