This Year’s Defense Authorization Bill To Include Federal Land Grab

Sarah Hurtubise | Reporter

Congress is set to pass the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week, providing funding and authorization for vital national security interests– with a significant federal land grab, to boot. The grab, pushed through on a bill that is difficult to vote against, will add to the 635 million acres  — or nearly 28 percent — of the United States the federal government already owns.

This will be the 53rd year in a row that Congress passes the NDAA. Each year, the bill encompasses everything from war-time operations in the Middle East to health care programs for veterans and their families, to DOD contractors in the U.S. Some years, Congress has to deal with weighty issues — such as allowing for indefinite detention of Americans — but each year it passes handily.

But when an essential piece of legislation that is sure to be passed comes up, there’s always something extra that politicians want to push through. With a defense authorization bill, any congressman would be hard-put to vote no over wasteful extras when when the bill concerns national security.

Which makes it the perfect opportunity, in some people’s minds, to take advantage of. This year’s bill is expected to include new federal land grabs, new museums, and even funding for a new commemorative coin– all hardly relevant to vital national defense interests.

The hefty lands package in the bill has caught the attention of outgoing Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who wrote to Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell expressing his disappointment that the provisions would be included.

“A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Coburn wrote. But it looks like the lands package will end up in the bill after all.

Here are the major land-grabs included.

National Women’s History Museum

The proposed National Women’s History Museum will be included in the upcoming defense bill, according to a top Republican staffer. The House authorized the new museum, which will be afforded a place on the National Mall, earlier this year; the Senate has yet to vote on it. The museum’s CEO, Joan Wages, promised in an op-ed last month that the museum will be privately funded.

National Parks & Studies

National parks may be the most well-known pieces of federally-owned land, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. U.S. land totals about 2.27 billion acres — as of 2012, the federal government owned 28 percent of it. National parks alone take up 84 million acres across all 50 states and U.S. territories.

It’s hardly popular to increase the feds’ share of American land, so into the NDAA it goes. According to congressional sources, the new bill will include provisions authorizing four new national parks and seven national park studies, which typically result in new national parks of their own.

Federal Wilderness 

Government-designated “wilderness” accounts for a much larger chunk of federally-owned land than national parks. Federal wilderness areas tops 106 million acres in the U.S.– about 4.5 percent of the country’s total area. The 2015 NDAA is expected to toss several thousand more acres on the top of the pile.

National Heritage Areas

These federal lands, another project of the National Park Service, are designated by Congress as sites with “natural, cultural, and historic” importance. After it’s set aside by the federal government, the land isn’t owned by NPS, but the agency provides matching funds and “advice” to the private entities. The 2015 defense authorization bill will provide 16 extensions to national heritage areas, according to congressional staffers.

Wild and Scenic Rivers 

Turns out the federal government also has a hand in keeping specially appointed rivers and “primitive,” “undeveloped” and unpolluted. As of July 2011, 203 rivers in 38 states and Puerto Rico had earned federal status, or 12,598 miles of water. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System laments that far more rivers haven’t fallen under its control, and that Americans have built over 75,000 large dams. Not to worry — the defense funding bill will add more wild and scenic river designations, as well as studies that could end in more designations down the road.

Sealaska Land Conveyance

This bill will hands over tens of thousands of acres of land to Sealaska, an entity representing native Alaskans. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a new version of the bill that would convey 70,000 acres in southeast Alaska under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

National Park Service Commemorative Coin 

When all else fails, who doesn’t love a commemorative coin? The House passed a bill authorizing a new National Park Service 100th Anniversary Commemorative Coin in April 2014 and the funding is expected to come courtesy of the NDAA. The April legislation includes $5 gold coins, $1 silver coins and half dollars to honor the NPS’s 100 years and 84 million acres.

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