Monday, February 23, 2009

Birmingham News Op-ed - Bi-partisan Effort to Save the Lands We Love

The following is an Op-ed written by BEN Publisher Pat Byington. It appeared in the Birmingham News -2-23-09


Three weeks ago this was the one buzzword we all heard coming out of Washington DC.  Today, as a result of the overwhelmingly partisan vote that took place on the economic stimulus package (and now law), hopes for a more unified Washington tackling the enormous issues of the day seem all but dashed.

So how do we refocus Congress and foster a genuine spirit of bi-partisanship?  Pass the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

Americans love our public lands, and it is that love that unifies us. 

The famous author and farmer Wendell Berry once said, “The earth is what we all have in common.” 

Neither party, especially here in Alabama has a monopoly on this issue.  Each can take credit for a generation of progress protecting our public lands.

For example, in the 70s Democratic Senators Jim Allen and John Sparkman introduced legislation creating the Sipsey Wilderness.  Democratic Rep. Ronnie Flippo pushed for the expansion of the Sipsey in the 80s while Rep. Tom Bevill  in the 90s championed the creation of the Little River Canyon National Preserve.  On the other side of the aisle, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions authored legislation creating the Dugger Mountain Wilderness and the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, while also joining forces with fellow Republican Spencer Bachus to establish the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. 

If there was ever a cause that has built consensus, bi-partisanship and national unity it has been the environment.

The Omnibus Public Lands Act in front of Congress, will designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers and four new national trails.   In Alabama, the measure will expand Little River Canyon National Preserve, which was supported by Sen. Sessions and local congressmen Mike Rogers and Robert Aderholt, and will establish the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, sponsored by former Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer. 

The entire omnibus package contains nearly 160 broadly supported, bipartisan bills that would preserve key components of America’s natural heritage and provide important economic benefits to struggling local economies.  In fact, the legislation includes measures introduced in last Congress by 53 Senators (27 Democratic, 25 Republican, and one Independent) and 75 Representatives (39 Democratic and 36 Republican).  Virtually all of the pro-conservation and wilderness measures included have strong local support and many are the result of years of local collaboration and consensus building.  Now that’s bi-partisanship.

What’s more, most Americans realize that we don’t have to choose between protecting our environment and helping our economy. Research has shown that wilderness and other protected areas provide great benefits to rural economies by increasing property values, providing new economic opportunities in recreation and tourism, and providing desirable places for people to live and work. Passing this legislation would not only protect special places across the United States, it would also benefit numerous struggling rural economies. And it would cost taxpayers close to nothing.  In this economic climate, such a win-win is hard to find.

This public lands package represents an historic opportunity to protect natural treasures for all Americans. There is no time to delay the passage of such a sweeping measure that would provide countless more opportunities for people to experience the outdoors, protect sources of drinking water and provide important benefits to rural economies. 

We need to call on our representatives to pass the omnibus package as is – meaning no amendments. This long-awaited legislation was blocked in the Senate for over a year. If the House makes any changes to the bill, it would have to return to the Senate, where it would likely be stalled again, effectively killing the legislation for the year. 

President Obama has said that a key to his job is the ability to do many things at once. Let’s call on Congress in the spirit of bi-partisanship, to join in the multi-tasking by resuscitating our economy while protecting more of the lands that make America great.

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