Biz Groups Beat Out Enviros In Spending Bill

From an Alaska land swap to tours of a Georgia barrier island, business interests bested environmentalists in battles that shaped Congress' $388 billion spending bill.

The legislation wasn't totally one-sided as it boosted expenditures for operating national parks and continued bans on oil drilling in national monuments and many offshore areas. Lawmakers also omitted business-sought provisions to help a huge Oregon logging project and to ease standards for some pesticide use.

Business groups said the spending bill, which with accompanying documents ran 3,646 pages, was too wide-ranging for either side to declare victory.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say it was a clear win," Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said about the legislation that lawmakers soon will send to President Bush for his signature.

Even so, much of the measure reflected the pro-business orientation of Bush and Congress' majority Republicans, who dominated the crafting of the package. Oil, ranching, timber and tourism all scored victories.

"This bill is harmful to the environment, there's no question about it," said Linda Lance, vice president for public policy for the Wilderness Society. "And to the extent that people see this as a way to do business in the future, that would be enormously harmful."

With the GOP seeking to curb spending, the bill -- financing every federal agency but the departments of Defense and Homeland Security -- limits overall 2005 domestic programs to 1 percent more than last year.

The National Park Service gets $1.7 billion to operate its parks, a 6 percent increase that Blake Selzer of the National Parks Conservation Association called "one of the bright spots of the bill."

Overall federal land acquisition, though, is about $166 million, well below its $444 million peak of three years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency gets $8.1 billion, 3.4 percent below last year, while agricultural conservation is cut 3 percent from 2004 to $999 million.

One section opposed by environmentalists would let up to 900 ranchers forgo full environmental reviews when they submit for renewal their permits for grazing herds on National Forest Service lands.

The provision is aimed at helping the service reduce a backlog of nearly 3,800 permits that are up for renewal and would otherwise require intensive environmental analyses. Ranchers whose lands seem to lack serious environmental problems would qualify for the speedier process, eliminating what otherwise could be years of delay.

"It's horribly wrong to eliminate people's livelihood because the government was not completing its paperwork on time," said Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers who use public lands.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a chief author of the bill, scored several victories for industry in his home state.

The measure would continue a year-old provision limiting the period for legal action available to opponents of logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest.

It also has a new provision giving 100,000 acres of Alaska's Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge to a company that wants to drill there for oil and gas. In exchange, Doyon Ltd., a private company established by Congress for the benefit of native Alaskans, will give land to the refuge, a haven for waterfowl and other animals that is nearly triple the size of Connecticut.

The provision has angered many environmental groups.

"You shouldn't be swapping land inside a wildlife refuge," said Betsy Loyless, a League of Conservation Voters lobbyist.

Supporters say the government will receive valuable habitat land while Doyon gambles that it will find minerals on the parcel it receives.

"We have a charge to tend to the social and economic well-being of our shareholders," said James Mery, a Doyon vice president.

Another section weighs in on a dispute on the other side of the country, allowing continuation of motorized tours of Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore.

About half of Cumberland, the East Coast's largest undeveloped barrier island, is a federal wilderness area where vehicles are supposed to be forbidden. It also is dotted with historic structures and opulent estates.

Environmental groups have sued to try stopping the tours and the use of roads through the wilderness section of the island. The bill will allow the continued use of the roads and up to eight tours daily.

The legislation also:

--Thwarts opponents of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park by allowing the same 720 snowmobiles per day as last year, and

--Blocks a court order won by environmentalists requiring the removal of three 70-year-old outfitter camps from Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.