By NACD Natural Resources Policy Specialist Adam Pugh
Last week’s mid-term elections resulted in the U.S. House of Representatives flipping to a Democrat majority for the first time since 2010. In the conservation world, focus is primarily centered on the expired farm bill. However, the elections will also significantly impact the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The House Committee on Natural Resources has jurisdiction over many non-farm bill issues important to conservation districts. With the flip of the House, former ranking member Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) will most likely be the committee’s next chairman, replacing Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT). When the 116th Congress meets in January, Congressman Grijalva will set the agenda for the committee. He is likely to charge the committee with reviewing the effects of the Trump Administration’s environmental agenda and will hold more oversight hearings of the Department of the Interior (DOI) and its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS). Congressman Grijalva has publicly stated that he plans to lead investigations into some of the department’s appointments, such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The committee will likely explore legislation or oversight hearings centered around the Administration’s efforts to rewrite some Endangered Species Act (ESA) rules, public lands issues and changes to national monuments such as Bears Ears in Utah. Additionally, the House may also move on legislation designating additional lands as national monuments.
Rep. Grijalva has previously campaigned on and introduced language to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with no changes. If the LWCF is not addressed by the end of the 115th Congress, a straight reauthorization of the fund is likely to come out of the House next year. Chairman Bishop drafted legislation earlier this year enabling Congress to limit the authority under the LWCF through which the federal government can purchase new lands, citing its improper management of existing federal lands. NACD sent a letter to Congress in September suggesting improvements to the LWCF.
Congressman Grijalva has also opposed efforts to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for forest management, stating the increase in severity and frequency of wildfires is a direct result of climate change. Under Congressman Bishop, the committee has focused on wildfire mitigation through active forest management. It is likely that climate change-related legislation will be passed out of the House in the 116th Congress.
While Republicans lost their majority in the House, they increased their majority in the Senate. The two Senate committees that split jurisdiction over natural resources issues, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) and the Senate Committee on Energy and Public Works (EPW), will most likely continue to be led by their current chairmen. EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) expects to continue working on efforts to modernize the ESA in line with the committee’s work in the 115th Congress. In August, NACD sent letters to the House and Senate regarding ESA modernization, advocating for increased local and state government authority on conservation efforts and bringing ESA into the 21st century to improve species recovery. NACD Natural Resources Policy Specialist Adam Pugh wrote a blog earlier this summer evaluating the proposed ESA legislative packages and describing the national association’s positions on ESA policy.
With additional Republicans in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will have more latitude in confirming presidential appointments, such as the recent nomination of Aurelia Skipwith to be the next FWS Director, reducing the amount of time the agency is without permanent leadership.
Many of the mentioned issues that may pass the House will most likely stall in the Republican-controlled Senate. ENR Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has previously advocated for streamlining efforts of NEPA to improve forest health and mitigate wildfires. Within the past few months, Chairman Murkowski voiced opposition to a permanent reauthorization of the LWCF with mandatory funding included. Senator Murkowski has stated that the president should not be able to designate large amounts of public land as national monuments through the Antiquities Act. Instead, Congress should be responsible for these designations. She has also argued how important it is to have local support for these designations, and that the proposed monument’s congressional representatives should be consulted when determining potential national monuments.
As leadership begins to focus attention on priorities for the next Congress, it will be important for NACD and our grassroots members to remain engaged, to communicate our priorities, and help members of the House and Senate understand how locally-led conservation can provide bipartisan solutions to the important natural resource issues that they will be addressing.