Budget Bill Riders Set Anti-Environmental Policies

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 14, 2003 (ENS) - Republicans slid a host of anti-environmental riders into the final text of the $397.4 billion spending bill passed by Congress yesterday. One rider blocks appeals against a pending decision on whether to expand protection for Alaska's Tongass National Forest. Others cut funding for land conservation, weaken the national organic labeling standard, and expand a pilot forest thinning program that environmentalist decry as a further subsidy for timber companies.

"Congress just bought smaller, more degraded forests and open spaces," said Bonnie Galvin, director of budget and appropriations for The Wilderness Society, a national conservation organization based in Washington, DC.

The process to stuff the appropriations for all federal agencies except the Defense Department into one bill was never expected to be pretty, but even seasoned members of Congress are surprised by the end result.

McCain

Arizona Senator John McCain (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, blasted his colleagues for a 3,000 page document that "no one in this body has had time to thoroughly review, examine, and debate."

Members of Congress complained that they were forced to pass the massive spending bill, because allowing the government to continue operating through stopgap resolutions was a worse alternative. The bill will fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2003, which ends in September.

The House adopted the bill by a vote of 338 to 83, the Senate by a vote of 76 to 20.

The bill includes a rider that expands the Bush administration's controversial forest stewardship program, which permits the Forest Service to allow private contractors hired to thin national forests to take whatever timber they want from the treated area.

Forest Service officials have touted the program as an effective way to get the private sector involved in forest thinning, but there are no limits to what kind or size of trees that can be removed and sold.

logging

Logged area after a 1994 wildfire on the Kootenai National Forest, in the northwest corner of Montana. (Photo courtesy Wild Rockies)
The language inserted into the spending bill expands it into a full blown program for 10 years and adds the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Some 450 million acres of public lands could now be subject to this program, which has never been evaluated for cost or for environmental impact.

The expansion "reinvents the Forest Service," Galvin said.

"This is one of the worst riders that has come along in frecent memory," warned Sara Zbed, legislative director for Friends of the Earth. "It is a blatant handout to the timber industry."

The program gives timber companies incentives to seek contracts in areas with commercially valuable timber, Zbed argues, rather than sites most at risk from potential wildfires.

"When I think of all the time and effort that has been expended by both bodies of Congress deliberating forest issues," Senator McCain said, "I find it difficult to believe that this sweeping change in current practice could be placed in this bill without any consideration by those that have an enormous stake in our forests."

Alaska Riders

Language added to the bill by Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, prevents administrative appeals and judicial review of the Forest Service's pending decision on how far to expand protection of the Tongass National Forest.

Stevens

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
This slipped through, Zbed argues, because of a calculated strategy by the Stevens and fellow Alaskan Don Young, a Republican Congressman. Young introduced riders to exempt the entire state of Alaska from the roadless rule and to open the Tongass National Forest, and the Chugach National Forest, to further logging.

Young's provisions caused serious uproar from Democrats and eventually were defeated, but Steven's rider slipped through.

Stevens defended the riders on the Senate floor, blaming the roadless rule and "frivolous lawsuits by the multibillion-dollar environmental lobby in an effort to lock up public resources on public land" for declines in his state's timber industry.

Although much of the anti-environmental language in the final bill was added by Republicans, environmentalists are not happy with a rider thrown in by Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. Dorgan's rider waives the standard requirement that cost benefit analysis must be considered for the Army Corps of Engineers project which would drain Devil's Lake located in North Dakota.

Residents have complained of the lake's flooding, prompting Dorgen's attention. But environmentalists argue that the plan, which would drain the lake's water into the Red River, could be costly, and environmental concerns about dumping potentially polluted water into the river from a closed basin lake must be considered.

Another provision concerning an Army Corps of Engineers project has drawn the ire of environmentalists. Led by Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, the effort to force the federal government to pay for Mississippi's Yazzo Pumps project has succeeded. The language mandates the Army Corps to issue continuing contracts for the project, assuring its completion regardless of cost or environmental impact.

Weakening the Organic Standard

The huge spending bill includes a rider that imposes a significant change to the national organic standard, allowing livestock producers to certify and label meat as organic if the animals were fed partially or entirely on conventional grain.

cattle

Organically raised c attle could be fed conventional rather than organic feed. (Photo by Keith Weller courtesy USDA)
The rider would not allow any funds to be used to enforce the 100 percent organic feed requirement for certified organic livestock operations unless a report prepared by the Secretary of Agriculture confirms organically produced feed is commercially available at no more than twice the cost of conventionally produced feed to meet current market demand.

Included to placate the poultry industry, this language was rejected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last June.

The organic industry is "outraged" by the rider, according to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. DiMatteo calls the rider "an underhanded attempt to circumvent consumer expectations and the integrity of the organic industry."

"This is a slap in the face to the many certified organic farmers who are legitimately following the standards," she said. Her organization hopes a pending report from the USDA will show that organic feed is commercially available in adequate quantities and at prices that fall below the limit set in the language intended to subvert the requirements.

Less for Land Conservation, Battle Over ANWR

Money for land conservation was slashed in the final spending bill. Federal grants for land conservation were cut by some $119 million, with state grants down some $50 million.

Conservationists also objected to the removal of land conservation funds from the Farm Bill for the $3.1 billion drought assistance package.

Alaska

Coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
Despite fears that some Republicans would try to sneak through provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling, this did not come to pass. But language that the House had approved, which would have expressly prohibited the Interior Department from spending money on predrilling leases within ANWR, was removed.

Democratic Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts, along with 128 bipartisan cosponsors, introduced a bill yesterday to permanently protect some 1.6 million acres of ANWR's coastal plain.

Markey

Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"It is clear that the Arctic Refuge is now in the same category as Yellowstone or Yosemite, that there are places so special, so unique, and so unspoiled in our natural world that they should be set aside for future generations as national treasures and protected against energy development," said Markey.

Republican leaders in Congress have indicated they will try and push through provisions to open ANWR to oil drilling as early as next month.

Environmentalists were not too surprised that the omnibus spending bill contained controversial riders, but charge that this year's process was worse than ever. They argue that the Republican Congressional leadership, along with the Bush administration, settled many issues behind closed doors and tagged on the majority of the controversial riders.

"These proposals weaken important environmental protections, undermine democratic principles and contradict the will of the American public," said Debbie Sease, Sierra Club legislative director.

"Some members of Congress have taken a must-pass bill and loaded it down with controversial riders that will cause serious damage to our natural treasures and undermine the trust that citizens have in Congress," Sease said. "This is not only damaging to America's special places but an affront to democracy."