Eye On Washington: October 2021

Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative Analyst

Biden Nominates Indigenous Tribal Member to Lead the National Park Service

The last administration found it increasingly difficult and embarrassing to get Senate confirmation of nominees who sometimes had obvious conflicts of interest or personal issues that made them less-than-palatable to enough Senators that they never passed. As a result, some agencies were led by deputies and long-time acting designees that did not require Senate confirmation. With regard to some agencies, such as the National Park service, that lead to disarray at the top between unconfirmed appointees and career professionals. Some actions taken by those unconfirmed political appointees during the last 4-5 years have been challenged regarding their legal authority.

This summer President Biden announced his nomination for Director of the National Park service, Charles F. Sams III.

Sam’s nomination was applauded by virtually all conservation organizations noting his many years as director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a reservation located in Oregon with over 3,000 tribal members. Though some legal scholars and a few others have questioned his lack of experience with managing parks and large agencies with complex challenges between states and private enterprise, barring any surprises, his nomination is expected to pass easy confirmation.  Though the NPS leaders have previously been African American and female, and a Latino man was acting for a while under the last administration, there has never been a tribal member at the agency’s helm. As Interior Sec. Haaland stated: “The diverse experience that Chuck brings to the National Park Service will be an incredible asset as we work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone. I look forward to working with him to welcome Americans from every corner of our country into our national park system.”

Slouching Toward Budget Reconciliation 

While Congress and the Biden Administration heaved a sigh of relief on the Senate bipartisan passage of a generous infrastructure bill before the Senate left for recess, Speaker of the House Pelosi has made it clear she wants the Budget Reconciliation bill done before she signs the House version of the infrastructure bill. 

The pathway to the President’s signature on both is not straightforward. Both parties want to point to their better working relationship with the Infrastructure Bill as the prime example. The Budget Reconciliation bill, however, only requires a Senate majority for passage. Pelosi’s poker game is determining how much budget support for things like climate change and conservation she can squeeze into the Reconciliation bill to make sure it will pass the house without losing the ever-teetering swing votes of moderate Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ.) Both are endangered Democrats in conservative states and Biden needs their support for his agenda. 

An example of the tightrope Pelosi is walking is provided by our own congressman, Huffman. Conservationists are still steaming over the questionable, if not downright dishonest, way Senator Murkowski (R-AK) was able to push energy exploration in the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of the budget bill passed during the last administration.  In the House, Rep. Huffman is trying to include language to stop leases in ANWR and offshore energy exploration as part of the Reconciliation bill.  House Democrats believe the federal budget will require $40 million to repeal ANWR drilling and another $50 million to ban drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Florida part of the Gulf of Mexico. Though specific language has not been divulged, conversations among leadership in both the House and Senate are on-going. “I’d rather not be very specific,” Huffman told reporters of conversations he’s had with leaders regarding the negotiations, “but let’s just say I think it’s in play and I’m hopeful.”  After working for four decades to successfully open ANWR to drilling leases, it is unlikely the Alaska congressional delegation will let that slip away. Murkowski’s working relationship with Manchin and other Democratic senators makes inclusion of halting ANWR leases a very steep climb.  Rep. Porter (D-CA), however, may find there is less resistance to a provision she has discussed that would, for the first time in over a century, update the oil leasing program on federal lands. Porter’s proposal would include an increase in royalty rates for onshore oil and gas leases. “Administrative actions alone cannot solve this problem,” said Mary Greene, public lands attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. “Congress must … swiftly take action to update our hundred-year-old leasing law so that our nation can transition to the clean energy economy that we all need and deserve.”

Ever-Moving Line Between Water and Wetlands

President Biden is enjoying a judge’s decision in which the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona struck down Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR), an attempt by the last administration to limit the reach of the Clean Water Act in protecting wetlands and upper reaches of watersheds. The timing is good for Biden’s team who has been working on a revision to the rule that would withstand legal challenges by developers and states. If the new rules pass the legal tests, conservationists can continue to advocate for protecting precious wetlands that are disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of the climate crisis as well as urban and suburban sprawl.