During a conference call with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., last week, a group of sportsmen and public land advocates painted a bleak picture for the future of Montana's wild country.
"It's like an assault on everything that's in conservation," said Bill Geer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Climate, water, land conservation - it's like they don't believe in anything in conservation. It's not hard to imagine there's a bunch of guys getting together and saying, ‘Let's gut everything that gets in the way of business.' "
The complaints ranged from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is allowed to get about $900 million a year from off-shore oil and gas leases but is only budgeted for a 10th of that, to an amendment that would block recovery efforts for bighorn sheep if they interfered with domestic livestock grazing permits.
The callers also objected to the near-elimination of a fund that works to support rare animals like sage grouse before they are placed on the endangered species list.
"I know we are in a difficult financial situation and we have to get that house in order," Tester said. "But you can't cut the legs out of things that increase revenue."
Outdoor recreation contributes more than $1 billion to Montana's economy and more than $14 billion nationwide, Tester said. And that industry depends on healthy public lands, bountiful wildlife and support for the people who keep things that way.
But public land management also costs money in a time when money's scarce.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is challenging Tester for his Senate seat next year. He said the nation's financial problems simply overshadow public lands management.
"When you have financial difficulties, you look at what can you pay for this year," Rehberg said from his ranch near Billings. "You pay for food, you pay for housing, and then you see how much money you got left. Is there something you can push off until next year? Frankly, if you had extra money, now would be a good time for you to go out and buy a house. Do you have the income?"
So programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund aren't being attacked, but their funding is needed elsewhere, Rehberg said. He argued that last year's economic stimulus package wasted much of the country's discretionary cash by failing to turn the economy around.
"We're having to look at the basics," Rehberg said. "I don't weigh the LWCF against jobs - I didn't make that argument. Our job is one, to balance the budget. Two, to make tough decisions so taxes don't go up. And three, improve the economy."
"I think it's fair to say we haven't seen this sort of assault on environmental protections for at least a decade," said Jane Danowitz, director of public lands policy at the Pew Environment Center in Washington, D.C. "Take a look at the sheer volume and scope of proposed rollbacks. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, laws on the books that have protected public lands for decades, the Endangered Species Act. I think opening the Grand Canyon to uranium mining says it all. It seems nothing is off-limits."
This year's Interior Department appropriations bill contains more than 70 policy riders that don't affect spending but would change major land-management rules or protections, Danowitz said. The last major effort to use the Interior budget for policy changes came in 1995, when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich oversaw 17 riders in the appropriations bill.
"This time, there's a push from industry, off-road vehicle users and tea party activists who don't believe, philosophically, in government regulation at all," she said. "They see an opportunity to capitalize on the need to reduce federal spending to target programs they don't like, even though they don't result in savings to the treasury."
Kerry White of Citizens for Multiple Use in Bozeman interpreted the same moves from a different perspective.
"The number one thing is jobs," White said. "That's the focus of this Congress. Look at what's going on with the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There's so much regulation coming down under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, that any industry - timber, oil and gas, minerals, any of those things - those industries are hamstrung. And the reason being is the regulations that are coming down from the agencies by directives or executive orders from the president."
One of the main legislative retorts to that perceived overregulation comes from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. His Defending America's Affordable Energy and Jobs Act (S.228) would reverse the Environmental Protection Agency's ruling that carbon dioxide was harmful to public health, block the agency's power to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and prohibit use of the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water and Clean Air Act to address global warming.
In a March statement explaining his bill, Barrasso said, "Regulatory agencies in this president's administration continue to seize powers they were never granted. Most of these powers are being used to enact policies that couldn't gain majority support even when the president's party controlled both houses of Congress. We are witnessing an open rebellion by a runaway Washington bureaucracy against the consent of the governed."
During his conference call last week, Tester pledged to "fight like hell on this stuff," but warned there would be more public lands challenges to come.
"There's folks that are not very inclined to support conservation," Tester said. "If you see stuff coming down the pipe that doesn't pass the smell test, get ahold of me. It's going to take real proactivity to end up with a bill that has what we want in it."
The debt crisis debate will have another turn on the stage later this year. Part of last week's settlement set up a "super committee" of 12 congressional leaders to propose another $1 trillion in budget reductions by Nov. 23, with a vote required by Dec. 23.
Missing either deadline could trigger across-the-board budget cuts that neither Republicans nor Democrats like.
Danowitz predicted that will result in another must-pass spending bill loaded with unscrutinized policy changes. That's become the new way of getting the nation's business done, she said.
"I don't think it's about whether the conservation or environmental community can move something through," Danowitz said. "It's can anybody move something through? The nation was about to default on its debt and the House and Senate and president couldn't agree to anything until the 11th hour. It's about whether any sort of policy-making in the traditional way - whether on the environment or health care or education - that process is so broken that policy making isn't functioning."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.