In the midst of the budget gridlock, Republican lawmakers have slipped a host of “riders” to prevent the enforcement of environmental laws into unrelated budget bills — spurring an outcry by many Arizona environmental groups.
One of the riders would repeal a decade-old rule that requires federal agencies to manage some 50 million acres of federal land in a way that will not prevent them from eventually qualifying as protected wildernesses.
That includes about 1.2 million acres in Arizona, including a 17,000-acre tract of land that connects several other nearby protected areas, including Fossil Creek and the West Clear Creek Wilderness area.
“We don’t get any more undeveloped wild areas,” said Jim Stipe, president of the AZ State Council of Trout Unlimited, “so we have to be very careful with those we have left, especially areas that protect migration routes and river headwaters.”
The federal government adopted the roadless rule after 600 public hearings, in part to protect watersheds and wildlife and in part because agencies like the U.S. Forest Service didn’t have enough money to maintain its existing, sprawling network of dirt roads. The rider would essentially repeat the rule without any further hearings.
Sam Frank, central Arizona director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition said “Arizona’s forest are carved up with more than 51,000 miles of existing routes that impact important habitat for myriad species. The Coconino National Forest alone has nearly 6,000 miles of roads — that’s more than the mileage from San Francisco to New York. We don’t need laws that enable more destruction of our forests.”
However, supporters of the rider maintained that the rule locked up too much acreage, by barring new roads that would increase use by off-roaders and campers. The rules concerning wilderness areas allow no structure and no motorized vehicles and effectively bar many activities like mining.
The flurry of anti-environmental riders represented the biggest attempted rollback of environmental laws in decades. House Democrats managed to block last week on a vote of 224 to 202. That provision would have gutted the Endangered Species Act by flatly banning any spending on the listing or any new species or the protection of their habitat.
A passel of other riders attached to unrelated bills are still making their way through Congress. That includes:
— A rule that would overturn a moratorium on new uranium mining on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon and also prevent the government from studying a permanent ban on uranium mining in the canyons that drain into the Colorado River, a chief source of drinking water for about 7 million people. Supporters of the moratorium and the study of the potential impacts of uranium mining have cited the danger of contamination of the Colorado River and downstream reservoirs.
— A rule that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from spending any money for at least a year on developing regulations that would limit the emission of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide by industry.
— Two riders that would substantially weaken regulation of coal mining methods that rely on the complete removal of mountain tops. The repealed regulations were designed to prevent the mining operations from burying or contaminating nearby streams.
— A provision that would essentially overturn an agreement between the EPA and automakers to nearly double the average fuel efficiency of their fleets of new cars for the 2017-2025 model years. The automakers had reversed decades of resistance to higher mileage standards and agreed to the phased-in changes, which would boost the average fuel use of new cars to about 54 miles per gallon.
— A provision that would prevent the EPA from spending any money to strengthen protection of protections for wetlands and small streams under the Clean Water Act. Studies suggest the Clean Water Act has resulted in the cleanup of thousands of miles of streams, many of which supply drinking water. However, a succession of court cases and administrative rulings have weakened wetlands protections in recent decades.
— One rider would prevent the EPA from labeling toxic ash from coal-fired power plants as hazardous waste. This would allow power plants to dispose of the ash more easily, without recycling or use of special precautions in dumps.
— Another rider would prevent the EPA from limiting the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in farm runoff going into Florida lakes and rivers, despite studies suggesting that the buildup of these elements had done mounting damage to the ecology of the Everglades.