Wildlife, Wildlands Escape Largely Unscathed in Defense Bill
When folks inside the beltway think of “must-pass legislation,” the first thing that inevitably comes to mind is the National Defense Authorization Act—or as it’s better known, NDAA. But with a 57-year record of strong bipartisan support, the NDAA could become a victim of its own success. Members of Congress increasingly look to it as an opportunity to tack on extraneous, poison pill provisions that only serve to add to the complexity of negotiations and tarnish the bill’s bipartisan history of support. This year, anti-environmental lawmakers once again attempted to use our nation’s national defense spending bill as a vehicle for riders that do nothing to enhance military readiness, but wreak havoc on public health and the environment. Thankfully, they didn’t succeed.
This time around, our environment, lands and natural resources faced some of the most serious challenges yet. Republican control of both chambers and the White House meant that destructive anti-wildlife, anti-public lands provisions were at a real risk of making it into the final version of the bill.
For instance, the House version of the bill included perennial riders that would block Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie chicken, and American burying beetle, undermining the law’s science-based listing process and limiting public engagement by prohibiting judicial review of the delisting decisions. It also included new and destructive anti-wildlife and anti-public lands riders, such as one that would have fast-tracked mine permitting and circumvented environmental review under the cornerstone National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Yet despite tough odds, all but one anti-environmental rider was removed during the House and Senate conference of the bill. The remaining rider weakens a core provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act—the law that has successfully protected whales, dolphins and other species for 45 years—by extending the duration of the military’s environmental permits for activities that harm marine mammals from five to seven years.
While still harmful to marine mammal conservation, the language in the conferenced version of the bill is substantially improved from the original proposal, which would have eliminated the requirement for the Defense Department to undergo periodic environmental review altogether. By allowing a single authorization to last indefinitely, the original proposal would have gutted a process that is intended to ensure continued oversight over uniquely vulnerable species.
Despite the marine mammal language, this outcome undeniably saved public health and the environment from extremely harmful provisions. Huge credit goes to environmental champions and ranking Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Representative Adam Smith (WA) and Senator Jack Reed (RI), who held the line against anti-environmental riders in conference and helped secure a nearly-clean bill. Representative Raul Grijalva (AZ), also led an impressive showing of opposition to the anti-wildlife provisions in the House bill. Further thanks are deserving to Senator Bill Nelson (FL) for his work to prevent the inclusion of the harmful Marine Mammal Protection Act language; without his efforts, the language would likely have been substantially more damaging. Finally, enormous gratitude goes to House and Senate minority leaders, Senator Chuck Schumer (NY) and Representative Nancy Pelosi (CA); without their leadership, this outcome would not have been possible.