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Resources in the Balance: The Concept of Compromise and the NDAA Land Exchange

Whether it’s from our mothers or from Mick Jagger, most of us learn somewhere along the line that “you can’t always get what you want.” It’s part of a mature approach to life, and – when applied to politics – is the precursor to reaching deals that, through compromise, find a majority.

A rejection of that wisdom is on display in the reaction to news that a federal land exchange package is included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House last week and is now awaiting Senate action. The package opens approximately 100,000 square acres of federal lands to resource development, while receiving more than 240,000 new acres into the federal wilderness reserve. In the effort to balance competing public goods – economic development, national security, and environmental conservation – it sounds like the kind of compromise people are anxious to see from the U.S. Congress.

Not so – at least for some officials who, unlike members of Congress, feel no such need to balance public goods. Witness Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, whose department includes the Bureau of Land Management — which, under the proposed package, will receive those new acres into the federal lands reserve – who pronounces herself “deeply disappointed” with the inclusion of one element in the package: the Arizona copper land exchange. That provision transfers more than 5,000 square acres to the federal government in exchange for 2,400 acres known to contain the significant copper reserves, an amount equal to less than one-tenth of one percent of Arizona’s 3 million square acre Tonto National Forest. As for Secretary Jewell, this is the same person who, as Secretary-designate, at her 2013 Senate confirmation hearing, embraced the concept of balance in public land policy, stating: “I have had that kind of balanced perspective in my career and would bring it to the role.”

That, as they say, was then.

Critics also claim the Arizona compromise ignores the concerns of local Native American tribes. But if you dig deeper – and by deeper, I mean if you Google the bill — the legislative language tells a different story. In fact, there are no less than four provisions that respond to the concerns of area tribes:

  • Government-to-government consultations with the tribes;
  • Special protection for an area called Apache Leap, and its withdrawal from any proposed mine plan;
  • Provisions for safe access to the Oak Flat area after the land exchange;
  • And a full NEPA review before the land title changes hands.

Where does this information come from? It’s in the published bill, as posted online. So much for the meme that the package is being slipped into the defense bill in the dead of night.

The same is true of the “last-minute” meme that plays so well at the close of any Congress. Contrary to this claim, the outlines of the Arizona land exchange have been discussed, debated and subject to Congressional hearings for years.

Then there’s the bipartisan, bicameral nature of the compromise. The package was shaped in the House by Republican Paul Gosar and Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. In the Senate, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) negotiated the provisions responding to tribal issues in consultation with Senator Jon Tester and his Democratic colleagues.

And finally, there’s the claim that the land exchange package is being attached to the must-pass 2015 National Defense Authorization Act – in Hill-speak, the inclusion of a measure that’s “non-germane.”

And yet, copper is the second most widely utilized material in defense weapons platforms, and a Department of Defense study has found that a copper shortfall has already resulted in a “significant weapon system production delay.” If Congress authorizes and funds defense weapons systems, isn’t it within their power to facilitate production of the materials that allow those weapons systems to function?

Is the package perfect? What Congressional compromise ever is? In Congress as in life, you can’t always get what you want, but as Mick Jagger may have learned at the London School of Economics and Political Science, sometimes, “you get what you need.”