Senate Passes Public Lands Bill!

The Pintler Peaks of southwest Montana, as seen from Discovery Ski Area – our public lands.

For several years there didn’t seem to be many good things going on when it comes to public lands, but Senate action last week seems to be a game changer.

The U.S. Senate voted 92-8 to advance the biggest public lands bill in years, demonstrating that Republicans and Democrats can actually get together and pass some legislation for the good of the nation.

As the Washington Post reported, the Senate action was a case study in how lawmaking is supposed to work. There were compromises that delivered a little something for just about everybody even if no senators got everything they might have wanted. It “harked back to a time when Congress worked,” the Post concluded.

A significant part of the Senate’s bill is that it permanently re-authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which lapsed last year. The LWCF uses revenue from offshore drilling to fund projects on national parks, wildlife preserves, even baseball diamonds and basketball courts. I should note, however, that Congress still has to appropriate funds annually, even if the LWCF becomes a permanent program.

Additionally, the bill establishes five new national monuments, plus makes expansions to some existing national parks. One of those new national monuments is called Jurassic, and is in Utah. This indicates a split between Utah’s senators. Utah’s senior senator, Mike Lee, opposed the bill, saying, “This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal land in the West and particularly for Utah.” Newly elected senator Mitt Romney defended the bill, saying, “This is the future our public lands need and deserve.”

The bill would permanently withdraw mining claims near two national parks, including some 30,000 acres of Forest Service land near Yellowstone National Park.

Another part of the bill clarifies that all federal lands are open to hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting unless otherwise specified. Also, bow hunters would be allowed to bring their weapons through national parks when traveling to areas where it is legal to hunt.

The bill next goes to the House of Representatives for approval, and fast action is expected. With the wide bipartisan support for the bill, observers expect that the president will sign the bill into law.

Also, last week, the House Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that would mandate background checks for all firearms purchases, essentially closing the “gun show” loophole.

This action is historic, as it’s the first time in several decades that Congress has even considered any firearms legislation. It’s too early to celebrate, however. Assuming the House passes the bill, it would no doubt die a lingering death in the Senate where Majority Leader McConnell will likely bury it without ever allowing a vote on the issue. Still, it’s a shot across the bow of the gun lobby groups, an indication that times are changing. Elections do have consequences.

Changing topics, the cold, wintry weather we’ve had in recent weeks has gotten lots of discussion, in line with the old saying that “everybody likes to talk about the weather.”

Seattle got slammed with several snowstorms, creating a mess of epic proportions. In Minnesota, Senator Amy Klobuchar declared her presidential candidacy in a snowstorm prompting the President to tweet snide comments on climate change.

Of note, however, is that while we’re having a cold and snowy February, and much of the country shivered from the impacts of the recent Polar Vortex, arctic areas of northern Alaska have been having abnormally high temps this month. On February 7, temperature readings soared some 30 to 50 degrees above normal across Alaska’s North Slope.

Writing for the Washington Post, Ian Livingston, a Washington D.C. weather expert and researcher, reports that temperatures got above freezing in Utqiagvik (formerly called Barrow), a rarity for winter. There was even open water along the coastline.

In the arctic region, 2018 was the third warmest year on record, and was the second-warmest year for the state of Alaska. Meanwhile, southeast Alaska is having drought conditions in the area’s temperate rain forests.

Weather science involves a lot more than looking out the window.

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