Poison Pills in the National Defense Authorization Act

“The middle of the road is where the white line is – and that’s the worst place to drive.”

— Robert Frost

The recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA H.R. 3979): signed into law by President Obama is being hailed by many green groups as a big win for conservation. Some suggest it is an example of what can be accomplished when you seek compromise. But as Robert Frost noted decades ago, being in the middle isn’t always a good place to drive or argue conservation gains.

Though a coalition of 47 of mostly regional environmental organizations called on Congress to abandon the public lands riders to the legislation, most of the larger national organizations wrote glowing accounts about “victory”, “significant achievements” and used other positive descriptive adjectives.


For instance, Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation president and CEO, said:

“It’s the holiday season and Congress has given Americans an early gift – protection for roughly a million acres of watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat and prized recreation areas on public lands.”

And the National Parks and Conservation Association characterized the bill as “a remarkable achievement” because it expanded a number of national parks, and created some new park units

And the Wilderness Society asked members to write Congress and thank them for designation some new wilderness areas. And then they go on to suggest that “Congress has proven that protecting our public lands is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but an all-American value.”

Some groups noted that there were some parts of the Defense bill that were not positive for public lands. For instance, PEW Charitable Trusts noted “Although the Pew Charitable Trusts did not favor some provisions of the bill, we supported passage of the land protection pieces of the bill and worked toward that end.”

While PEW noted they had some reservations about some aspects of the bill, they do not mention them. Neither does any organization that supported the bill’s passage, and for good reason. If the supporters of these groups knew the real contents of the Defense bill, not only how public lands were assaulted, but other nebulous provisions as well, I do not think one would be celebrating. They would be crying instead.

A friend of mine used to say you can lie in two ways. By distorting the truth or by omission. In these ecstatic pronouncements, there was a great deal of omission.

So what are we celebrating? As one wilderness advocate said to me: “There was some really bad negotiating from our collective side on this bill. Rather than mostly good bills with a few poison pills it was mostly poison pills with a few nice decorative ornaments as distraction.


Here’s some of the “ornaments” in the legislation. The NDAA designated 246,000 acres of new wilderness including additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington (22,000 acres), Rocky Mountain Front in Montana (67,000 acres), as well as new wilderness areas like the 45,000 acre Columbine—Hondo Wilderness in New Mexico, the 38,000 acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness in Colorado, and the 48,000 acre Wovoka Wilderness and 26,000 acre Pine Forest Wilderness in Nevada. It might seem like a good day for wilderness but when the last public lands Omnibus wilderness bill passed in 2009, more than 2 million acres of wilderness were protected.

I am not trying to denigrate the designation of new wilderness. Certainly it has been a long time without significant new acreage added to the National Wilderness System. I’ll take whatever I can get from Congress, but whether these additions were worth the “costs” in other bad provisions is not so clear. Most of these lands were not threatened in any way, and would, I feel, have eventually been designated wilderness by Congress sooner or later.

As conservationist Andy Kerr noted: “Just putting some acres on the scoreboard at the cost of other lands is not a good way to behave.”

Some wild lands advocates are quick to note that other designations besides wilderness included  in the bill offer some additional protections. For example a 208,000 acre Conservation Management Area was established along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana as well as a 70,000 acre Special Management Area in the Hermosa Creek drainage in Colorado and a mining/oil drilling ban for 430,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead near Glacier National Park.

Mind you these particular protections do not necessarily ban logging, ATVs, livestock grazing, and other exploitative activities, but they do provide greater protection than the status quo.  Jennifer Ferenstein, the Montana senior representative for The Wilderness Society, acknowledged that the major value of the Heritage Act is largely a “status quo” legislation. “Basically the goal is to try to keep the current uses on the land in place,” she said. Thus ATVs, mountain biking, logging, livestock grazing, and so on will continue–albeit with limits on some of these activities. For example, no new roads can be constructed more than a 1/4 miles from specific main roads and all temporary roads must be removed within a three year period.


In addition to new wilderness areas, there were some worthy national park units created. The transfer of Valle Caldera Preserve from National Forest administration to the Park Service will definitely be a long-term improvement for this special area.

Creation of 23,000 acre Tule Springs National Monument near Las Vegas from BLM lands will protect some fossil sites on the growing northern edge of the city. These lands were administrated poorly by the BLM and basically suffered from the BLM’s careless attitude.

Yet I would be hesitant to use the phrase “remarkable achievement” that National Parks and Conservation used to characterize the NDAA park additions. Calling these park additions a “remarkable achievement” seems like hyperbole to me.

The remarkable achievement includes what I would characterize as “pork” for local communities and I have serious doubts about their value and “national” significance. For instance, the new Parks package includes Lower East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site (New York) and the train station at Gettysburg where Lincoln “stepped on the platform” on his way to give the Gettysburg address. While I might suggest that the Gettysburg address is an important historic event, protecting a train station where he stepped is hardly a “remarkable achievement” in my eyes.

The expansion of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park to include some working agricultural fields and irrigation system hardly seems worthy of excitement.  Do we really need the NPS to preserve Ag fields and irrigation canals?

The Manhattan Project’s nuclear reactors and history is celebrated at three sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford in Washington. Whether telling this story requires three sites, or even one, can be debated.

There is Coltsville National Historical Park established in Connecticut to “celebrate” the Colt gun manufacturing, but I would suggest this hardly qualifies as “national significance”.

There is the Blackstone River Valley Historic Park, already designated as the Blackstone Valley River National Heritage Corridor that will “celebrate” the industrial revolution by protecting several old mills along the Blackstone River. How this differs significantly from other similar sites celebrating water power and the Industrial Revolution like Patterson Great Falls Historical Park in New Jersey and Lowell Historical Park Massachusetts is not clear. It just seems like another one of those national park pork sites designed to pump money into local economies by creating a nationally sponsored tourist attraction.

In short, if you are just counting numbers, then this legislation has added more new National Park units than any other Congress in recent history. But none of these units qualifies as “remarkable” and I even question whether some of them deserve to be part of our national park portfolio.

The Defense bill which had at best very little in the way of significant conservation, and at a great cost to public lands, demonstrates how little in the way of any conservation successes that many of us are willing to promote as progress. I can celebrate the new wilderness areas and parks, but I would be quick to note that overall the NDAA was a loss for public lands and conservation.


More importantly the NDAA had some very bad, bad, provisions that jeopardize millions of acres of public lands, and also sets bad precedents.

The NDAA authorizes the transfers of 70,000 acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to a private corporation to log. In other words the giveaway—at no cost– of our land to a private company! In Arizona, another 2,400 acres on the Tonto National Forest were approved for transfer to Rio Tinto, an Australian-English company to ease the creation of a large open-pit copper mine on lands sacred to the Apache Indians. In Nevada, 11,500 acres of BLM lands were transferred to the city of Yerington to facilitate mining.

As part of the blood drawn for support of wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Front, two wilderness study areas (WSA) in eastern Montana totaling 14,000 acres were declared unsuitable for wilderness protection so that coal mining could occur, and another two WSAs near the Missouri Breaks (15,000 acres) are to be studied for potential oil and gas exploitation—a net total of 29,000 acres that will no longer be designated as wilderness.

As bad as giving away public lands to private corporations or eliminating WSA status to permit coal mining or oil/gas development may be, perhaps the piece of the NDAA that has the most far-reaching implications is a provision that mandates the Forest Service and BLM to automatically renew grazing permits while exempting them from public oversight and environmental review. This has the potential to permit the continued degradation of millions of acres of public lands by domestic livestock. Just this one provision alone is not worth the potential gains from new wilderness areas or parks.

Other provisions while affecting relatively small areas could become common-place. For instance, mountain bikers succeeded in changing the boundary of the 50 year old Wheeler Peak Wilderness in New Mexico to accommodate creation of a 15 or so mile, three-hour jaunt above 10,000 feet “on ripping-fast singletrack.”Also, the boundaries of the Stephen Mather Wilderness in North Cascades National Park will be adjusted against the wishes of the National Park Service to rebuild and relocate the long washed out remote part of the Stehekin road.

Of course some cynics would argue that the BLM and Forest Service basically exempts ranchers from environmental review and oversight now, so that this provision will not change grazing effects on the ground, while the wildlands and park additions will bring about real tangible positive protections.

Is the cup half empty or half full depends on your perspective. One can make the argument that as bad as the NDAA is for public lands, at least we got some positive outcomes. Supporters of the legislation argue that we may not have been able to stop the bad amendments from being included as riders anyway. We will never.

But what I do know for certain is that calling the NDAA a “victory”, a “remarkable achievement”, an early holiday gift and/or a cause for “celebration” begs the question of what wouldn’t these groups celebrate?

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 37 books, most recently Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.


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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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