Hold your "offensive title" fire. The title is about disabled hunters, but the post itself isn't. It's just like a hearing the House Energy & Natural Resources Committee held Tuesday on H.R. 1581, the blandly named "Wilderness and Roadless Release Act of 2011." The Republicans brought in a carefully choreographed parade of witnesses, including disabled veteran hunters, to create the illusion of diverse, patriotic support for the bill. In reality, the disabled hunters are merely a prop hiding the fossil-fueled real interests behind the Great Outdoors Giveaway.
1. What the bill is supposed to do
Only Congress can designate land as wilderness. Federal agencies were required, by 1993, to inventory their public lands and determine which, if any, were suitable for wilderness - "wilderness study areas" - so that they could be preserved until such time as Congress may act. The Bureau of Land Management has identified about 12 million acres in 550 areas as wilderness study areas. Separately, the Forest Service has identified 15 million acres for study, although not given interim protection, and the Clinton Administration issued the Roadless Rule prohibiting new roads in nearly 60 million acres of Forest Service land - "inventoried roadless area." Since then, the Roadless Rule has been a political football: undone by the Bush administration, reinstated (more or less) as the Obama administration's "Wild Lands" policy, then funds for same blocked by the GOP-majority 112th Congress.
If a parcel of land isn't suitable for wilderness after having been studied, Congress is supposed to release it back to the appropriate agency. And Congress has done so on a case-by-case basis. HR 1581 would mandate immediate release of all of the wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas back to the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. (I'll call them both wilderness study/roadless areas.)
2. What people can do now in the wilderness study/roadless areas
They can hike, fish, ride mountain bikes, hunt, and ride off-road vehicles. Let me repeat that for emphasis: People can hunt in wilderness study/roadless areas. They can ride off-road vehicles in wilderness study/roadless areas. They just can't drive a van on to a paved road into a roadless area, park it in a handicapped parking spot, and then hunt. And apparently that really bothers House Republicans. Hence, H.R. 1581.
3. Who opposes this bill?
A broad coalition of wilderness groups calls this the Great Outdoors Giveaway.
The Obama administration strongly opposes the bill. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior during the Clinton administration, testified against the bill: “Simply put, it trades protection of wildlife habitat, clean water and clean air for corporate profits. It is nothing more than a giveaway of our great outdoors,” Babbitt said.
The Salt Lake Tribune calls it an awful lands bill: "No consideration would be given to any particular parcel, regardless of its value for recreation, watershed, wildlife or cultural antiquities. No suggestions from local groups would be considered, such as the discussions going on in San Juan County now over what lands qualify for wilderness designation. This bill would simply erase the years spent by many hundreds of people to categorize millions of acres according to their particular values."
4. What's really going on?
If this bill were simply about disabled hunters, small exceptions and exemptions could be written. But the Independent Oil Producers' Agency's support for the bill is the first clue as to who's behind it.
Not a lot of comparisons between wilderness study/roadless areas and fossil fuels have been made. In researching this post, I found dueling 2001-02 studies by the Bureau of Land Management and The Wilderness Society regarding the impact of the roadless rule on oil and gas deposits in the Green River Basin area.
The BLM study (pdf), examining the Greater Green River Basin of southern Wyoming and northwestern Colorado, concluded that the Clinton-era roadless rule prevented access to a lot of natural gas. Of the 116 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas underlying federal lands in the region, 1% was under Congressionally-protected land (national parks and wilderness), 29% under administratively-protected lands (roadless rule), and 38% subject to part-time environmental restrictions (e.g., can't drill during sage grouse nesting season). In other words, the BLM would give unrestricted leases over 32% of its land. That study was written in 2001.
In 2002, the Wilderness Society published a rebuttal report (pdf) to give some perspective: the economically recoverable gas under all roadless rule areas of the West would only meet America's need for natural gas for 9 to 11 weeks.
The natural gas industry has changed dramatically since 2002. The Cheney-lobbyist-written Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted natural gas fracking from certain clean water laws. The price of natural gas has doubled from $2.17 per thousand cubic feet to above $4 per thousand cubic feet. New oil and gas finds have been made in North Dakota and Montana and California's Kern County, among other places. In particular, the practice of fracking has both created a natural gas boom and bubble, causing the Securities & Exchange Commission to subpoena energy companies for possibly inflated statements regarding productivity of shale gas wells.
Despite all these changes, consider the face value of the shale gas in the Green River Basin, per the 2001 BLM report. The basin has 117 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, of which the roadless rule kept 33 trillion cubic feet from production and environmental timing issues restricted production of another 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At today's prices, that's $132 billion barred by the roadless rule, and another $180 billion barred by nesting birds. Or so Republican members of Congress and their lobbyists tell each other over pricey cocktails.
Still not convinced that fossil fuel interests lurk behind the public face of H.R. 1581? Consider Utah's Turtle Canyon, a wilderness study area. The proposed Lila Canyon coal mine, bordering the canyon, is said to be one of the last high quality coal mines in the state, with a conservative estimate of 37 million tons of coal to extract; its owner would pay royalties to the state and Emery County. In 2010, Utah coal sold for $30.77/ton (pdf), so the mine could be worth $1,138,490,000 if all could be extracted at 2010 prices. Not surprisingly, Emery County officials want the Turtle Canyon Wilderness Study Area released to the BLM. H.R. 1581 would release that and many more, shown in dark green on this map.
The millions of acres to be released by H.R. 1581 would then be leased to oil, gas, coal, and other commercial interests, no doubt at below-market rates. Coal would be mined. Oil would be drilled. Natural gas would be fracked. And these activities would have a horrendous, as-yet-uncalculated impact on climate; natural gas, which is largely methane, may have a higher carbon footprint than coal (pdf).
Disabled hunters may be testifying before Congress, but they're only a front for the people who will benefit from passage of H.R. 1581: the oil, gas, and coal industries who would drill, undermine, spill, frack, and suck the marrow out of lands owned by the American public, for their private profit and to our sorrow.