WASHINGTON -- In a rare Sunday session, the U.S. Senate moved closer to passing a massive lands package that designates new wilderness areas throughout the West and also allows the state of Alaska to build an airport access road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
The Sunday vote was a swipe at Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who objected to what he described as questionable priorities and wasteful earmark spending in the lands package. By holding the vote Sunday, a procedural deadline, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved the legislation faster and made it less vulnerable to maneuvers that could derail it.
The bill passed 66 to 12, well above the 59 votes needed to allow it to proceed to a formal vote later this week.
The legislation pulls together 150 public lands, parks and water bills in one package. It authorizes water projects on Indian reservations, declares some rivers as wild and scenic and designates 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states.
"Everybody holds their nose" and votes for it, Coburn said, because so many senators have individual projects they want to see passed in their states.
But he complained about the road through the wildlife refuge and other projects in the 1,300-page bill, including sections that authorize spending $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida and $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., six years from now. He also complained that the bill curtails energy development by designating so many federally owned acres as wilderness.
"I have no doubt that there are key, significant things that need to get done that are in this bill and a lot of them I'm not opposed to," Coburn said. "But I will tell you, I'm always going to be opposed to wasting money."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee that oversaw the legislation, acknowledged the criticism that the bill is big and blankets generous territory.
"It is a large pile of paper; it's almost 1,300 pages," she said, but added that most of the individual provisions have seen a thorough review by her committee and a similar committee in the House of Representatives. Such legislation is "necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the Western economy," the Alaska senator said.
She added that money authorized for some of the projects in the legislation still must be appropriated by budget committees before it can be spent.
Both she and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, voted for the bill. It was Begich's first roll call vote in the Senate.
The bill will be voted on formally this week in the Senate, then sent on to the House for approval. Some hope to have it signed into law before President George W. Bush leaves office Jan. 20.
The Alaska portion of the bill authorizes a controversial land swap that gives the state a seven-mile easement through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The easement allows the state to complete a 25-mile gravel road that will link Cold Bay with King Cove. In exchange, the state is expected to transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government. Much of that land would go to the Izembek refuge; part would be designated as wilderness.
The community of King Cove has sought the road for the past decade as an alternative to the hovercraft used now to travel across the bay to get to the airport in Cold Bay. The World War II-era airport is home to the third-longest runway in the state and open in nearly all weather conditions, unlike the smaller King Cove airport across the bay.
Residents have access to a hovercraft to cross the bay, but say they need the road to evacuate people with health emergencies during inclement weather.
Some conservationists say that it is unprecedented to allow a road through a wildlife refuge, and that cars and trucks on the road will disrupt migratory birds in the refuge as well as other wildlife that pass along the narrow isthmus. However, the bill does requires an extensive federal environmental review before it can be built.
Despite those concerns, many conservation groups supported the package as a whole because it had so many provisions to protect rivers and designate wilderness that had broad support.
"It will be a most welcome action by many Americans who face so much uncertainty in their lives," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "It will be nice for them to know they can visit their most treasured spots and see them just as they are. They will be able to continue to hike, hunt, fish, camp, or canoe amid this natural splendor, and that is no small consolation in these difficult times."