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Eastern Environmentalists Slip Measure into Western "Healthy Forests" Bill


Federal "Highlands Stewardship" Designation, Land-Buying Fund Almost Passed

By Carol W. LaGrasse, December 7, 2003

Preservationists are hard at work to expand federal government control over New Jersey's landscape. Their slash-and-burn technique to incorporate their entire federal "Highlands Stewardship" program into popular forest management reform legislation has quickly moved their designation and over $100 million in land acquisition funding through the Congress this fall.

This year, the Highlands Stewardship program had been trumpeted by a consortium of preservation organizations, accompanied by advocacy journalism in The New York Times. The phase of the Highlands program now underway focuses primarily on New Jersey, its proponents emphasizing watershed protection for New Jersey's cities and forest preservation, but the Highlands area in the legislation takes in a wide stretch of land stretching from northeastern Pennsylvania across southeastern New York into Connecticut. The advocates for the preservation of the entire region have been building momentum for it for a decade. The New Jersey portion of the Highlands includes parts of Bergen, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex and Warren Counties.

The effort to pass this legislation reached its highest visibility on June 17, when the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands held a hearing on what was then a separate bill (H.R. 1964/S. 999) "To establish the Highlands Stewardship Area in the States of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania." The bill was introduced on May 6 by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R - N.J.), Rep. Ben Gilman (R - N.Y.), and Senator Jon Corzine (D - N.J.). Rep. Frelinghuysen and Rep. Scott Garrett (R - N.J.) testified in favor of the designation.

Although the Congressional delegations failed to comprehend the negative implications that more land use restrictions and government land acquisition bode for their constituents, the building industry, with more realistic experience, saw the practical implications immediately.

Stephen H. Shaw, the immediate past president of the New Jersey Builders Association, testified at the hearing that the bill would make New Jersey's housing crisis worse. According to Molly Villamana's article that appeared shortly afterwards in Greenwire, he said, "Land preservation and development restrictions in the Highlands can only serve to increase the cost of land and therefore the cost of a home" in communities where people already have trouble finding affordable housing.

Unnoticed by opponents of the Highlands Stewardship Act, which had some degree of controversy associated with it, the Senate quietly incorporated it into the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act," a House bill (H.R. 1904) to reform management of federally owned forests, behind which Western states that are beleaguered by forest fires and the national property rights movement had mustered their forces. The bill, widely known as the "Healthy Forests Initiative," represents years of effort to inject sane policy into federal management of forests. Among other reforms, the bill would help to free government agencies from the countless frivolous environmental lawsuits that have been partly responsible for the accumulation of fuel loading in federal forests, thereby helping to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires. In the final bill, after the Senate-House compromise, courts would have to weigh legal challenges to hazardous fuels reduction against the environmental consequences of management inaction when the specter of catastrophic wildfire looms. The bill expedites analysis and review requirements for priority wildfire mitigation projects. But less desirable compromises were unnoticed by property rights activists until the bill went to conference.

"It took the tragedy of the California wildfires to finally get the attention of the Senate that something had to be done to protect the environment and communities from catastrophic wildfire. Only after thousands of homes and nearly two-dozen lives were lost did they finally act and recently pass the Healthy Forest Act (H.R.1904) on an 80-14 vote," according to a bulletin by the American Land Rights Association (ALRA) on November 19, while the bill was in conference.

"But don't celebrate yet," continued the ALRA bulletin. "As always, the greens and anti-property rights weasels in the Senate never miss a chance to exploit a critical situation. They have used the death and destruction in California as an opportunity to advance their green agenda."

Calling the Senate version of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act a "Trojan Horse," the bulletin continued, "Title X of the Senate bill institutes the 'Highlands Region Conservation' program. This is a federal zoning plan to be run by the National Park Service covering over two million acres in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Of course, it will only be a matter of time before this program for the Highlands Region spreads nationwide."

The concern had been raised last June that this first "Stewardship" designation would open a Pandora's box of federally funded programs elsewhere. However, the Highlands acquisition funding currently has the primary mission of purchasing land in New Jersey.

The Star-Ledger had reported on November 1, "Federal funding to help purchase environmentally sensitive land in New Jersey's Highlands has moved forward in the U.S. Senate, attached to a forestry bill that has angered some environmentalists."

The Star-Ledger article, by Lawrence Ragonese, had reported that, when the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which deals primarily with lands in Western states, was approved by the Senate on October 30, "It included a $100 million amendment to finance land purchases in the Highlands in New Jersey." The paper had noted, "U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine had maneuvered that funding into the bill."

The Star-Ledger had tracked the Highlands bill's progress in the House, also, where it had continued as a separate bill from the Healthy Forests proposal. The Star-Ledger had reported, "A similar $110 million spending bill, sponsored by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen …made it through a House committee earlier this week, giving the Highlands funding a dual track towards possible approval by the end of the year, officials said."

"The bill, named the Highlands Stewardship Act, initially sought $250 million. Frelinghuysen said it had been difficult to get support for the original bill from Western interests in the House, so he worked with members of the House Resources Committee to get a scaled-down version approved," according to the Star-Ledger.

The $110 million Highlands Stewardship land acquisition measure did not have to face a floor vote of both Houses on its own merits as an isolated bill. Instead, it was debated in conference as part of the Healthy Forests bill just before the Thanksgiving recess. Because of her awakening as a result of the devastating fires in southern California, Senator Diane Feinstein (D - Cal.) wanted all extraneous additions to the fire-protection measure deleted, so as to expedite the measure. This coincided with Rep. Pombo's opposition to the Stewardship add-on. The Highlands Stewardship measure and all other additions were removed in conference.

President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act into law on December 3, but the nation's first "Stewardship" Act, focused on northern New Jersey, did not yet become a reality. Instead it soon surfaced as a new stand-alone bill with the usual sponsors. The plot thickened, however, as a bill to convert forests in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to a new National Forest appeared. If these measures succeed, a wildlife "corridor" to revert the many rural towns to a condition largely inhabited only by animals, hikers, and the wealthy would extend unbroken from eastern Pennsylvania through northern New Jersey, southeastern New York, western Connecticut, and western Massachusetts into the forests of Vermont.

Highlands Stewardship Act
Current Status - Feb. 1, 2004:

House of Representatives: HR. 1964, amended in the House Resources Committee, and passed the Committee and the House.

Senate: S. 999 - Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran, Miss., Chair. This was the companion bill to the original HR. 1964, but this version of the bill is not active.

HR. 1964. The House bill, as amended, is scheduled for a Hearing at 2:30 p.m., March 24, 2004 held by the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, chaired by Senator Larry E. Craig, ID. This Subcommittee is part of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, NM.


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