Calling a rare Sunday procedural vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved the U.S. Senate closer to passing a 1,300-page lands bill that would allocate $5 million in federal tax dollars on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida and $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine in 2015 — and place an additional 2 million acres in nine states off limits for any productive economic use by labeling them “wilderness” and/or declaring new and additional rivers to be wild and scenic.
The legislation — which would allow the state of Alaska to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — pulls together 150 public lands, parks and water bills in one package. It passed 66-12, well above the 59 votes needed to allow it to proceed to a formal vote later this week.
The bill advanced over the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who objected to what he described as questionable priorities and wasteful earmark spending in the package. The measure is also opposed by Nevada Republican John Ensign, though he was in Nevada and did not return to Washington for the procedural vote.
“Everybody holds their nose” and votes for it, Sen. Coburn said, because so many senators have individual projects they want to see passed in their states.
Despite the purportedly unprecedented provision to allow an access road through a wildlife refuge, many conservation groups supported the package as a whole because it had so many provisions to “protect” rivers and designate wilderness.
“It will be a most welcome action by many Americans who face so much uncertainty in their lives,” explained Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “It will be nice for them to know they can visit their most treasured spots and see them just as they are. They will be able to continue to hike, hunt, fish, camp or canoe amid this natural splendor, and that is no small consolation in these difficult times.”
And there you have it.
Yes, Americans who live so far away they will likely never see the “wilderness” areas in question — all in the Western states, you understand, none throwing anyone out of work in Georgia, Illinois, Connecticut or Massachusetts — may sleep more cozily now, believing that, far away in the distant West, something nice has been done for the birds and the bunnies.
But those who actually live in the affected regions may not find it much of a “consolation” to be deprived of gainful employment in any number of resource industries — mining, ranching, lumber — that will now be barred from making any productive use of yet an additional 2 million acres.
Such legislation is “necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the Western economy,” intoned Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, and among the Senate’s largest, second-generation pork wranglers.
Oh, hogwash. To the Americans actually attempting to make their livings on or near the lands in question, “wilderness” is not just about cozier dreams of happy squirrels. It’s about loss of livelihood as a full- or part-time miner, rancher, sawmill worker, or even mushroom picker — having to go on the government dole rather than feed their families with honest, productive work.