News » Opinion

Required reading

How Congress crafts public land bills



Understanding the complexities of federal land policies and congressional procedures is not a simple task. The confusion surrounding Sen. Jon Tester's recently introduced Forest Jobs and Recreation Act offers a prime example. Is it a wilderness bill? Is it a logging bill? Is it a national forest management act? Truth is, it's a little of each and, understandably, when you toss that many issues into a single piece of legislation, it's bound to be confusing.

Luckily, a new book released just this week promises to help readers comprehend those complexities and understand the issues. And, best of all, it's available online for free.

The book, Carving Up the Commons—Congress and Our Public Lands is written by Janine Blaeloch and published by the Western Lands Project, which Blaeloch heads. The entire book (106 pages) can be downloaded in PDF format from:

Perhaps the most succinct summary is provided by former congressional public lands committees staffer Erica Rosenberg in the introduction.

"Armed with insider know-how, Janine distills an astoundingly complex political process into an accessible manual. Although the process remains unwieldy, Janine's illumination of the legal framework and political context makes it far less so. In Carving Up the Commons, Janine has provided a much needed window into a shady world of back-room deals, special interests and cronyism, while offering pragmatic information and a tactful approach to citizen involvement."

Indeed, the book does just that—plus it provides myriad examples of federal land trades, giveaways and so-called "win-win" deals beginning with the millions of acres of railroad and timber grants in the early days right up to the "quid pro quo wilderness" deals being pushed in recent years.

Ever wonder how those massive checkerboard clearcuts that deface western Montana came to be? Blaeloch concisely traces the shameful history of how federal land granted to railroads for providing amenities for early settlers was quickly diverted from the original purpose and instead privatized by the few large corporations that dominated the railroad and timber industries of the era. Through the passage of time, congressional intent was simply ignored and wholesale pillage of the West's once-abundant natural resources took its place. Northern Pacific Railroad received the parcels, Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad succeeded them in interest. Finally, Plum Creek Timber, a wholly-owned Burlington-Northern subsidiary, "liquidated" its forest resources beginning in the '70s through unsustainable harvest levels until, most recently, Plum Creek morphed into a real-estate investment trust and is now selling off the land itself.

But while the often unsavory details of the massive early transfers of federal lands and waters to private uses will be appreciated by history buffs and students of federal land policies, most Montanans will likely find the later chapters more applicable to today's political landscape.

Blaeloch describes the wheeling and dealing that occur on a regular basis in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats to bring home the bacon to favored interests in their home states. Tracing the recent history of such measures, her analysis is steeped in references to the Clinton administration, the era of Republican domination of Congress and the White House and the recent control of both Congress and the White House by Democrats. Her portrayals of the character of those who continue to control the House and Senate Natural Resources and Public Lands committees provide powerful insights into the values—or lack thereof—of those who steer the nation's public lands policies.

But it is Chapter 5, titled "Pure Politics," where Blaeloch takes on the history of "consensus Wilderness" that arose in the late '90s and continues to play a role today in such measures as Tester's multi-faceted bill. Moreover, she follows the fate of some of those "consensus" bills, now dubbed "quid pro quo wilderness" as they made their way through the congressional hearing process and were amended significantly—sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Of real interest is her exposé of the role played by major foundations such as the PEW Charitable Trust and its Campaign for American Wilderness (CAW). For instance, does this sound familiar? "In a paper issued in October 2007, Tim Mahoney of CAW outlined and argued in favor of several 'collaborative forestry proposals' negotiated between conservation groups and the timber industry, proposing wilderness designations coupled with increases in logging."

Under the title "Buying Wilderness," Blaeloch writes that quid pro quo wilderness "has also created a deep schism within the community of wilderness and public land activists. Those who participated in these collaborative efforts described the satisfaction they experienced 'working with people we've never worked with before and...finding shared values and frustrations.'" That sentiment, however, is counterbalanced as "many veteran wilderness activists feared that special exceptions in these bills greatly imperiled the integrity of the Wilderness Act itself, by allowing uses and activities traditionally prohibited." Consider that the Tester bill allows military landings in wilderness and low-level military overflights and ask yourself if this is a traditional wilderness value.

And finally, Blaeloch hits the nail on the head with this gem: "Another notable aspect of quid pro quo wilderness was the exclusivity, even secrecy, of the process. Negotiators kept information to themselves and prevented outsiders from entering the process. This put them in the position of perpetuating the very secrecy that has long been an issue of contention between the conservation movement and the government and industry."

For those of us who find such precedents troubling, the good news is that Blaeloch predicts: "In the political shift ushered in with the 111th Congress, the fate of the quid pro quo wilderness is uncertain at best"—a contention she backs up with hard-core quotes from congressional members such as Rep. Nick Rahall and Rep. Raul Grijalva, who will oversee the fate of any future wilderness proposals.

If, like many Montanans, you're trying to figure out the value or future of Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, Blaeloch's Carving Up the Commons is well worth the read.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment