Defense Bill Wilderness Ornaments on Poison Package

“The middle of the road is where the white line is – and that’s the worst place to drive.” Robert Frost

The recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA H.R. 3979): signed into law by President Obama is being hailed by many green groups as a big win for conservation. Some suggest it is an example of what can be accomplished when you seek compromise. But as Robert Frost noted decades ago, being in the middle isn’t always a good place to drive or argue conservation gains.

Though a coalition of 47 of mostly regional environmental organizations called on Congress to abandon the public lands riders to the legislation, most of the larger national organizations wrote glowing accounts about “victory”, “significant achievements” and used other positive descriptive adjectives.


For instance, Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation president and CEO, said:

“It’s the holiday season and Congress has given Americans an early gift – protection for roughly a million acres of watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat and prized recreation areas on public lands.”

And the National Parks and Conservation Association characterized the bill as “a remarkable achievement” because it expanded a number of national parks, and created some new park units

And the Wilderness Society asked members to write Congress and thank them for designation some new wilderness areas. And then they go on to suggest that “Congress has proven that protecting our public lands is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but an all-American value.”

Some groups noted that there were some parts of the Defense bill that were not positive for public lands. For instance, PEW Charitable Trusts noted “Although the Pew Charitable Trusts did not favor some provisions of the bill, we supported passage of the land protection pieces of the bill and worked toward that end.”

While PEW noted they had some reservations about some aspects of the bill, they do not mention them. Neither does any organization that supported the bill’s passage, and for good reason. If the supporters of these groups knew the real contents of the Defense bill, not only how public lands were assaulted, but other nebulous provisions as well, I do not think one would be celebrating. They would be crying instead.

A friend of mine used to say you can lie in two ways. By distorting the truth or by omission. In these ecstatic pronouncements, there was a great deal of omission.

So what are we celebrating? As one wilderness advocate said to me: “There was some really bad negotiating from our collective side on this bill. Rather than mostly good bills with a few poison pills it was mostly poison pills with a few nice decorative ornaments as distraction.


Here’s some of the “ornaments” in the legislation. The NDAA designated 246,000 acres of new wilderness including additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington (22,000 acres), Rocky Mountain Front in Montana (67,000 acres), as well as new wilderness areas like the 45,000 acre Columbine—Hondo Wilderness in New Mexico, the 38,000 acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness in Colorado, and the 48,000 acre Wovoka Wilderness and 26,000 acre Pine Forest Wilderness in Nevada. It might seem like a good day for wilderness but when the last public lands Omnibus wilderness bill passed in 2009, more than 2 million acres of wilderness were protected.

I am not trying to denigrate the designation of new wilderness. Certainly it has been a long time without significant new acreage added to the National Wilderness System. I’ll take whatever I can get from Congress, but whether these additions were worth the “costs” in other bad provisions is not so clear. Most of these lands were not threatened in any way, and would, I feel, have eventually been designated wilderness by Congress sooner or later.

As conservationist Andy Kerr noted: “Just putting some acres on the scoreboard at the cost of other lands is not a good way to behave.”

Some wild lands advocates are quick to note that other designations besides wilderness included  in the bill offer some additional protections. For example a 208,000 acre Conservation Management Area (CMA) was established along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana as well as a 70,000 acre Special Management Area in the Hermosa Creek drainage in Colorado and a mining/oil drilling ban for 430,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead near Glacier National Park.

Mind you these particular protections do not necessarily ban logging, ATVs, livestock grazing, and other exploitative activities, but they do provide greater protection than the status quo.  Jennifer Ferenstein, the Montana senior representative for The Wilderness Society, acknowledged that the major value of the Heritage Act is largely a “status quo” legislation. “Basically the goal is to try to keep the current uses on the land in place,” she said. Thus ATVs, mountain biking, logging, livestock grazing, and so on will continue–albeit with limits on some of these activities. For example, no new roads can be constructed more than a 1/4 miles from specific main roads and all temporary roads must be removed within a three year period.

However, maintaining the status quo also means the CMA likely precludes any potential for future wilderness designation of the Rocky Mountain Front roadless lands. These are among the best wildlands in the lower 48 states–which the Forest Service gave its highest rating for wildlands characteristics during its RARE11 inventory.


In addition to new wilderness areas, there were some worthy national park units created. The transfer of Valle Caldera Preserve from National Forest administration to the Park Service will definitely be a long-term improvement for this special area.

Creation of 23,000 acre Tule Springs National Monument near Las Vegas from BLM lands will protect some fossil sites on the growing northern edge of the city. These lands were administrated poorly by the BLM and basically suffered from the BLM’s careless attitude.

Yet I would be hesitant to use the phrase “remarkable achievement” that National Parks and Conservation used to characterize the NDAA park additions. Calling these park additions a “remarkable achievement” seems like hyperbole to me.

The remarkable achievement includes what I would characterize as “pork” for local communities and I have serious doubts about their value and “national” significance. For instance, the new Parks package includes Lower East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site (New York) and the train station at Gettysburg where Lincoln “stepped on the platform” on his way to give the Gettysburg address. While I might suggest that the Gettysburg address is an important historic event, protecting a train station where he stepped is hardly a “remarkable achievement” in my eyes.

The expansion of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park to include some working agricultural fields and irrigation system hardly seems worthy of excitement.  Do we really need the NPS to preserve Ag fields and irrigation canals?

The Manhattan Project’s nuclear reactors and history is celebrated at three sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford in Washington. Whether telling this story requires three sites, or even one, can be debated.

There is Coltsville National Historical Park established in Connecticut to “celebrate” the Colt gun manufacturing, but I would suggest this hardly qualifies as “national significance”.

There is the Blackstone River Valley Historic Park, already designated as the Blackstone Valley River National Heritage Corridor that will “celebrate” the industrial revolution by protecting several old mills along the Blackstone River. How this differs significantly from other similar sites celebrating water power and the Industrial Revolution like Patterson Great Falls Historical Park in New Jersey and Lowell Historical Park Massachusetts is not clear. It just seems like another one of those national park pork sites designed to pump money into local economies by creating a nationally sponsored tourist attraction.

In short, if you are just counting numbers, then this legislation has added more new National Park units than any other Congress in recent history. But none of these units qualifies as “remarkable” and I even question whether some of them deserve to be part of our national park portfolio.

The Defense bill which had at best very little in the way of significant conservation, and at a great cost to public lands, demonstrates how little in the way of any conservation successes that many of us are willing to promote as progress. I can celebrate the new wilderness areas and parks, but I would be quick to note that overall the NDAA was a loss for public lands and conservation.


More importantly the NDAA had some very bad, bad, provisions that jeopardize millions of acres of public lands, and also sets bad precedents.

The NDAA authorizes the transfers of 70,000 acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to a private corporation to log. In other words the giveaway—at no cost– of our land to a private company! In Arizona, another 2,400 acres on the Tonto National Forest were approved for transfer to Rio Tinto, an Australian-English company to ease the creation of a large open-pit copper mine on lands sacred to the Apache Indians. In Nevada, 11,500 acres of BLM lands were transferred to the city of Yerington to facilitate mining.

As part of the blood drawn for support of wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Front, two wilderness study areas (WSA) in eastern Montana totaling 14,000 acres were declared unsuitable for wilderness protection so that coal mining could occur, and another two WSAs near the Missouri Breaks (15,000 acres) are to be studied for potential oil and gas exploitation—a net total of 29,000 acres that will no longer be designated as wilderness.

As bad as giving away public lands to private corporations or eliminating WSA status to permit coal mining or oil/gas development may be, perhaps the piece of the NDAA that has the most far-reaching implications is a provision that mandates the Forest Service and BLM to automatically renew grazing permits while exempting them from public oversight and environmental review. This has the potential to permit the continued degradation of millions of acres of public lands by domestic livestock. Just this one provision alone is not worth the potential gains from new wilderness areas or parks.

Other provisions while affecting relatively small areas could become common-place. For instance, mountain bikers succeeded in changing the boundary of the 50 year old Wheeler Peak Wilderness in New Mexico to accommodate creation of a 15 or so mile, three-hour jaunt above 10,000 feet “on ripping-fast singletrack.”Also, the boundaries of the Stephen Mather Wilderness in North Cascades National Park will be adjusted against the wishes of the National Park Service to rebuild and relocate the long washed out remote part of the Stehekin road.

Of course some cynics would argue that the BLM and FS basically exempts ranchers from environmental review and oversight now, so that this provision will not change grazing effects on the ground, while the wildlands and park additions will bring about real tangible positive protections.

Is the cup half empty or half full depends on your perspective. One can make the argument that as bad as the NDAA is for public lands, at least we got some positive outcomes. Supporters of the legislation argue that we may not have been able to stop the bad amendments from being included as riders anyway. We will never.

But what I do know for certain is that calling the NDAA a “victory”, a “remarkable achievement”, an early holiday gift and/or a cause for “celebration” begs the question of what wouldn’t these groups celebrate?


  1. Brett Haverstick Avatar
    Brett Haverstick

    Thanks for the breakdown George. In short, I’m disgusted by the package. To make matters even worse, the “W” in Nevada permits endless landings of helicopters to manipulate big horn sheep herds.

  2. snaildarter Avatar

    I agree the bad out weighs the good, but it was a carefully sculpted work of art with giveaways to possible opposition. This is typical of old style horse trading in Washington. The new congress probably will not need to be so kind. They will have the votes to take and give nothing in return.

  3. Fillyd Avatar

    Great article George! It expresses exactly what I think of this bill.

    There is something badly wrong with the big environmental organizations celebrating anything about this. Thank you Wilderness Watch, and others for having the courage to oppose it. All of us should have, including our president!

    Even the new additions to the national park system come with no money to start them up or operate them. So guess where the necessary money will come from to operate them — from already cash-starved parks. As we write this Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and other parks are working to raise the entrance fees by 40 percent to $35+/visit…and these are for parks we own!

    A few acres preserved — while what is it — 125 million acres of grazing allotments exempt from any environmental review — while 40 percent of the acreage of those allotments does not meet BLM’s own weak standards!

    At least in the next Congress, these poison pills will be exposed for what they are: theft from the American people to benefit a few corporations and welfare ranchers.

  4. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    Thank you George, it was too good to be true, and 70,000 acres in Tongass National Forest, weren’t we trying to save this land for years. The Apache people their land taken how this this happen? Thanks again George great read , I am afraid with the new congress it will only get worse.

  5. Yvette Avatar

    Thank you, George for a realistic view of just how much we lost in this NDAA bill. The gains are not equal to the losses.

    The Tongass Forest loss is to an Alaskan Native Corporation. These Alaskan Native Corporations were an assimilation attempt by the government in the ongoing parental relationship with the this counties Indigenous people. An Alaskan Native Tribe/Village owns shares in the corporation, but those shares can never be sold, only passed on to heirs. Many of the corporations are rife with corruption, and once again, the Natives get the shaft.

    All of us were thoroughly screwed on the Oak Flats land exchange in Tonto NF, AZ. It is sacred to the San Carlos Apache and there are artifacts in Oak Flats that date back at least to the Hohokum culture. That may not mean much to many people but we all will lose a natural area that has value far beyond anything monetary. What Oak Flats is and what will be lost:

    – It has a rare forest type, a Sonoran Riparian Forest where there are many natural springs, waterfalls and pools in Gaan Canyon, which is called Devil’s Canyon on maps. Here is one photo,

    – There are more than 2,000 rock climbing routes around Oak Flats that will be off limits once the land conveyance happens.

    – Between 89-2004 it was home to the largest bouldering contest in N. America. Hundred’s of climbers competed and thousands of spectators stayed and spent their money in Superior, Az and the surrounding area.

    Here is a description of the land we American get in exchange for Oak Flats.

    – Land of poor quality:
    + Dripping Springs parcel does not drip. It is dry.

    + San Pedro River parcel is dry and it is used by dirt bikers. It also has a lot of trash dumped. This parcel has a mesquite forest, which I read, is a sign of over grazing.
    Upstream from the parcel that will be exchanged the San Pedro has perennial flow, but not in the exchange parcel. It has been described as usually dry.

    + Tanlge Creek parcel is dry.

    – Resolution Copper will use a mining method called block caving. The proposed mining area is 2 miles wide and will go 1,000ft deep. It will collapse the land surface.

    – The mining operation will drain Queen Creek Canyon.

    – There will be 1 billion tons of rock excavated and it is predicted to produce 1.7 billion tons of mining waste.

    – NEPA will be conducted only after the land conveyance has happened, so basically, NEPA is a moot law in this instance.

    Send your thanks to:
    Senator McCain (R)
    Jeff Flake (R)
    Jon Kyl (R)
    Rick Renzi (R)
    Ann Kirkpatrick (D)

    They are the politicians that worked for and made this happen. We got screwed.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Don’t you worry. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

  6. greg capito Avatar
    greg capito

    Your comments on Alaska Tongass National Forest land transfers were incomplete. These acres were transferred to a native corporation to settle land claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and have been under negotiation for 10 years. This transfer may encourage logging as well as outdoor recreation and tourism development projects.
    Your reporting was therefore incomplete and included the same type of omissions you have accused others of making.

  7. bad Avatar

    The Gettysburg Train Station was preserved not due to the fact that “Lincoln stepped there” but rather that it is an original structure that played an integral part in the Gettysburg story. The building housed wounded of both sides both during and after the battle. It was the depot where thousands of relatives and friends arrived to look for loved ones who were lost. It was a lifeline for the U.S. Sanitary Commission who received supplies to care for the wounded and dying in town. Hundreds of men in coffins were loaded there for their final journey home. The depot also was the site where thousands of aging veterans returned for both the 50th and 75th Reunions. And finally the structure also has architectural significance.
    So I might suggest you do a little research before glibly dismissing this important act of preservation, which took years to accomplish.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Republican Mark Amodei says the Obama administration is to blame for the conflict over the chicken-sized bird.He says Jewell and others should be doing more to try to keep it off the list of endangered species.

    Hoo boy. It sounds like the only thing he is interested in is just keeping it off the Endangered list. After that, the poor bird is on its own.

    Nevada Lawmaker Fires Back at Jewell Over Grouse Politics

    Is it me, or is the NPS creating more monuments to human events/history and people than wildlands under the current regime?

    This package is far from thrilling.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      You wrote; “Is it me, or is the NPS creating more monuments to human events/history and people than wildlands under the current regime?”

      My observation is also YES, and I think the reason is that with these mostly urban sites, there is no oil/gas lying underneath or livestock grazing land on the surface, so the extraction industries which control the Dept. of Interior give their O.K. to these preservation efforts.

      1. Marc Bedner Avatar

        I agree, Ida & Ed. With the NPS takeover of the Valles Caldera Preserve, NPS is now in the livestock business. I’m not sure why George thinks it’s a good thing for NPS to fund a livestock operation which the previous trust was unable to run at a profit.

        1. Fillyd Avatar

          Ida, Ed, Marc…Back to reality. The NPS doesn’t “create” monuments or “takeover” anything. Congress does that. While the NPS may provide input on new areas and congressional testimony regarding those areas, they are not advocates in the allocation game, but pawns. Much of Lake Meade NRA is grazed, so is Escalante Staircase, and I can tell you no one in the NPS is an advocate for grazing. When Great Basin NP was created in the mid-1980s, it had active grazing allotments within and the agency has worked very hard to get them managed at first and eliminated. The NPS got these new areas and no money to operate them — so that money is going to come from the roughly 390 areas it currently manages — and those are already cash-starved.

          1. Marc Bedner Avatar

            The point of George’s article, as well as the article I posted on my EARTH for Animals blog is that Congress, including the vast majority of Democrats, is responsible for opening NPS areas to grazing. I don’t blame the underfunded National Park Service.

            1. Ida Lupines Avatar
              Ida Lupines

              Neither do I – we’re aware of the situation.

            2. Ed Loosli Avatar
              Ed Loosli

              Marc & Filly:
              Not is all as sweet and light as you paint the National Park Service. Congress has passed no law that orders the Nat. Park Service to help partner with the State of Montana to kill 900 Yellowstone bison this year on behalf of local cattle operations. Congress has not ordered the Nat. Park Service to continue livestock grazing in Pt.Reyes Nat. Seashore where the original authorized grazing leases expired 20 years ago. There are many other examples of the NPS caving into local political interests without any specific legislation coming from Congress.

              1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
                Joanne Favazza

                Right on, Ed.

  9. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Before this bill passed, I e-mailed my Dem Senators, urging them to remove all of the destructive public lands riders. I received a response from one of them today, singing the praises of the environmental gains in the bill and the compromise that achieved them. I let this Senator know that I wasn’t happy, that the Dems should have fought harder against the riders–even if it meant shutting the government down.

    Some things you just can’t compromise–especially when it comes to our cherished public lands, which are being stolen from us and exploited for profit. We desperately need a viable 3rd party–one that will stand up to the slimy corporate lobbyists and politicians who are intent on destroying our priceless public lands for a quick buck. We also need mainstream environmental groups that will actually fight for wildlife and wild places, to not be afraid to draw a line and say “no more.”

    1. Yvette Avatar

      +++ Joanne. I have zero faith that contacting representatives helps, but I called, regardless. I have Inhofe and Coburn (who has retired and did vote against it for other reasons…there is a reason he earned the nickname, Dr. NO). I even called Harry Reid’s office and they were short and curt even though I was precise and succinct. I honestly have not seen where contacting them makes a difference….I could be wrong, but I don’t think that I am.

      I wish we could get a viable 3rd party option, but that is so unlikely in America. The oligarchs, or whomever, will never allow it. Even it it were to happen how long before that group turns into the same lot that we have? I don’t know what it is about the political arena, regardless of the political system, (democracy, communism, or socialism, etc.) that seems to turn politicians into self-serving con-artists. It seems to not matter whether they are state reps, national reps or tribal council people. They seem to pretty much be cut from the same bolt of cloth.

      1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
        Joanne Favazza

        Well stated, Yvette. I think the only way that all life will ever have a chance of thriving again is if this greedy, destructive culture collapses entirely. I for one would welcome that.

  10. Rob Mrowka Avatar
    Rob Mrowka

    Totally agree George. The Defense Bill and the support by PEW and The Wilderness Society were dishonorable. That is why I strongly opposed the bill despite having worked for 11+ years to protect the upper Las Vegas Wash from development and more recently serving on the Board of Protectors for Tule Springs, a grass roots group advocating for the creation of the Tule Fossilbeds NM. As I said many times during the heat of opposing the bill, the ends do not justify the means in this immoral case.

  11. snaildarter Avatar

    The sad thing is the environmental riders got zero national press. The banking give-a-ways that Elizabeth Warren was so upset about was the only thing mentioned by name.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Yep, I noticed that too. The environment and wildlife need an Elizabeth Warren in Congress. She is feisty, and seems to be one of the rare politicians that has maintained a high degree of character.

  12. snaildarter Avatar

    Yep but I’m afraid she’s too honest and genuine to go far.
    I’d vote her for president but I’d like to know her views on wildlife and the environment first. And she must be able to win. A GOP president and congress would be an ecological catastrophe.

  13. T Lewis Avatar
    T Lewis

    As George rightfully points out, this legislation is symptomatic of the “collaboration and compromise” process that the folks running The Wilderness Society seem to advocate. It seems the folks in charge at TWS are great at talking the talk. They approach the Wilderness legislation process with the mindset: “If WE get some of what WE want, and THEY get some of what THEY want, then everybody goes home happy in the end, and that’s really all that matters.”

    And then we (TWS) can call it a “victory” and raise more money, because after all, that’s what it all comes down to if you’re The Wilderness Society. Money.

    We’ve all heard people say, “It really doesn’t matter who wins or who loses, it’s how you play the game.”

    Well the folks in-charge at The Wilderness Society these days are masters at “playing the game”.

    And they are masters at wordsmithing a loss into a victory. After all in the legislative process world, spin is king, right?

    C’mon Wilderness Society, give me a break . WE lost this round and you know it. Don’t try to spin the outcome to make it sound like a victory.

    And you wonder why I don’t send you money any more???


    1. Nancy Avatar

      T Lewis, did you have a chance to watch this video Louise posted? Worth the 30 minutes.

      1. T Lewis Avatar
        T Lewis

        Nancy, thank you.

        I just finished watching the video you had suggested. Wow. I don’t know who the gentleman doing the speaking is, but his passion for Wilderness is genuine, inspiring, and, I might add, quite contagious.

        That speech was a shot in the arm. Thank you for sharing it.

        1. T Lewis Avatar
          T Lewis

          I just re-visited the beginning of the vid and realized that his name was provided…Chris Barns.

          Thanks again.

          1. Kathleen Avatar

            You might also be interested in this, a much shorter version of a paper Chris co-authored for the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy: “Wilderness: The Next 50 Years?”

            1. T Lewis Avatar
              T Lewis

              Thanks Kathleen.

          2. Nancy Avatar

            Credit goes to Louise for posting the link, T Lewis. And I agree, a shot in the arm. I’ve shared the video with a few like minded friends, hope you will do the same 🙂


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George Wuerthner