Sen. Ted Stevens rallied the barest margin of Senate support Wednesday behind his effort to protect the right of Alaska and other Western states to claim traditional foot-paths and trails as highway corridors through federal lands.
By a 51-49 margin, the Senate voted to kill an amendment by Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., to scrub Stevens’ protective amendment from an $8 billion emergency spending bill. The legislation provides flood relief for the upper Midwest and money for military operations in Bosnia and elsewhere.
Stevens is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that wrote the spending bill.
The vote came after a furious debate over a new Interior Department policy restrictively defining the application of a 130-year-old law known as RS 2477. That law granted states the right to claim traditionally used trails as highway rights of way.
The law was repealed in 1976, but pending rights of way claims were supposed to be processed under state law. The January policy issued by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, however, shifted the burden to states to prove that traditional trails had been improved for “vehicles.”
Stevens insisted that the Babbitt policy was an attack on states’ rights, and that the consequence would be to overturn congressional policy allowing states to define the trails qualifying as highway rights-of-way.
“We spend a great deal of time trying to convince Congress of the rights we had when we voted to become a state,” Stevens said. “These people (at the Interior Department) act as if this land is theirs. It will be a cool day in Hades when Alaskans allow them to do that.”
Stevens was joined in the fray by Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the trails-to-highways issue.
Holding up a map of Alaska showing only 13,000 miles of roads, Murkowski said the state rights of way under the Civil War era law “are the future and vitality of our state.”
“This is our lifeblood and future because the federal government basically owns our state,” Murkowski said.
But Bumpers insisted that the Babbitt policy would stop states like Alaska from carving highways through national parks and wilderness areas simply by asserting that they were traditionally used foot-paths or dog-sled trails or otherwise claimed under state law.
“I cannot believe that more than 3 percent of the people would condone highways just because there was a foot trail or some kind of Indian path,” Bumpers said.
The White House said in a letter to Stevens last week that his trails-to-highways provision was among a handful of objectionable provisions that invited a presidential veto of the flood-relief package.
Babbitt backed that up with a letter to senators Wednesday saying he’d urge a veto if the provision remained in the spending bill after a compromise was reached between the House and Senate.
Wednesday’s vote fell 16 short of what the Alaskans would need to override a veto. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., indicated that he’d be working to craft a compromise on the Stevens provision but it was hard to see Wednesday where such an effort could lead, given the entrenched views.
xxxx Roll call Idaho: Craig (R), Yes; Kempthorne (R), Yes. Washington Gorton (R), Yes; Murray (D), No.