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ICYMI: The Hill: Federal land exchanges in the National Defense Authorization Act

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 4, 2014 | Committee Press Office (202-225-2761)

Federal land exchanges in the National Defense Authorization Act
Daniel McGroarty, President of American Resources Policy Network
The Hill, Congress Blog
December 4, 2014

In the December dash to act on must-pass legislation in the waning days of the 113th Congress, there are real risks that ill-advised initiatives will make their way into law.  

Then again, the pressure on both branches of Congress to actually act can sometimes produce that rarest of results – demonstrating that sound policy is still possible in Washington.  Case in point: the carefully crafted federal land exchange package that is among the proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the must-pass bill that sets in place Pentagon policies and defense funding for the year ahead. 

Analyzing breaking legislation is a tricky business, and some have characterized the land exchange package as a federal land grab, appropriating even more acres into the already-massive federal wilderness inventory. And if that’s all there was to the package, there would be little reason to support it, and even less reason to see it tucked into a major defense bill.  

But that’s not the full story. The new lands added to the federal wilderness register are part of a balanced agreement – a land swap that frees up current federal lands for resource development, providing new and needed domestic sources of oil, natural gas, coal, timber and key metals like copper.  This balancing act – resource-rich federal land made available for development, offset by new tracts being added to the federal wilderness rolls – is in the spirit of the multiple-use standard at the core of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which enshrined in law the concept that federal land should be managed to “best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”  That means that various public goods – conservation, environmental stewardship, economic development and resource security – should be factors in formulating federal land policy. 

The proposed NDAA land package is an opportunity to break the logjam that has characterized much of the 113th Congress, and to do so in a way that balances conservationist principles and the policy imperative to encourage the development of key materials critical to a revival of America’s manufacturing might. 

The concept of balance is honored in another way as well:  The revenues raised form the federal lands freed for resource development will help pay for the costs of conservationist stewardship.  That’s an important principle, at a time when the U.S. Department of Interior has accumulated an estimated $20 billion worth of deferred maintenance on federal lands. 

Including such a package in the NDAA is well within the purview of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, as a land exchange section has been a fixture in the annual NDAA for at least 25 years, spanning both Republican and Democratic presidencies. 

Take the case of copper, where the U.S. production leaves a shortfall currently met by imports totaling 600,000 metric tons a year.  The proposed exchange can facilitate a new source of domestic supply sufficient to nearly close the copper gap. That’s a legitimate national security objective, as the lack of copper and two of its by-product metals – molybdenum and tellurium – have, as the National Defense Stockpile Requirements Report notes, already caused significant defense weapons system delays. 

Nor is this the kind of special interest legislative sausage-making stuffed into a must-pass bill that Congressional critics rightly condemn.  Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and their Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been crafting this compromise for the better part of two years. This isn’t a last-minute ornament being hung on the Congressional Christmas Tree; the NDAA is the culmination of this process.  

The result is something the 113th Congress hasn’t seen much of:  a balanced legislative package, backed with bipartisan support, that will generate jobs and GDP while advancing critical national security interests.  Not bad for a lame-duck day’s work. 

McGroarty is president of American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan education and public policy research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.