No one in her or his right mind thinks the 106th Congress is going to pass a whole lot of actual free-standing legislation. It will likely take every ounce of strength this feeble Congress can muster to pass the essential spending bills that fund the government.

So riders, those pesky little items that hope to escape scrutiny by hitching a ride on big money bills, are the name of the game, as noted in last week’s Muckraker. The current vehicle for riders is the behemoth supplemental spending bill primarily intended to fund the war effort in Kosovo. As of this writing, the bill is headed for a contentious Senate-House conference where some riders may be squashed while others may stealthily leap up at the last minute to take their place. Muckraker has been hearing repeated rumors in recent days about new anti-environmental riders in the mix.

Mary Beth Beetham at Defenders of Wildlife says she expects Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) to attach a rider forbidding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from designating critical habitat for the Rio Grande silvery minnow or perhaps forbidding critical habitat designation altogether for any species anywhere.

Domenici seems to think this move is necessary even though, in a Dear Colleague letter obtained by Muckraker, Domenici wrote that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt “has flatly stated that he is not prepared to designate critical habitat at this time for the silvery minnow.” The letter continues: “[Babbitt] also states that certain groups have unreasonable views about the hydrology of the river; frankly, some are demanding a river that has never been in existence. Do not let the name ‘Rio Grande’ mislead you; this river historically goes dry.”

This Land Is Mine Land

In other rider news, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) plans to attach a rider that, according to Stephen D’Esposito at the Mineral Policy Center, would allow mining companies to dump waste on public lands. D’Esposito says that Gorton came up with the rider after the Interior Department denied a permit to a mining consortium to build the so-called “Crown Jewel Mine” in Okanogan County in Washington state. Interior based its decision on the 1872 Mining Law that most enviros abhor, but in this case the law’s provisions about dumping mining waste on public lands worked to the advantage of environmental groups.

“The whole thing is outdated and should be tossed out,” D’Esposito said of the mining law. “But our point is that while the bad portions are being enforced, at least these few protections that exist should be enforced as well.”

Gorton does not share that view. The text of his rider reads:

“No funds made available under this Act or any other Act for any fiscal year may be used by the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture to apply, defend, or otherwise give effect to the opinion, dated November 7, 1997, by the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior concerning millsites under the general mining law …”

No beating around the bush there.

And there’s more. Rumors abound that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) will uncork a rider to forbid the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from designating the Alabama sturgeon an endangered species, which could rekindle a bitter battle over the ‘bama sturgeon from 1993. Additional riders may still pop up.

Enviro groups of all stripes are sending out mass emails and working overtime to ratchet up the visibility level of these riders. The Mineral Policy Center distributed some 10,000 “Environment Times” mock front-pages around Washington last week lampooning the mining rider. Groups have also been successful in getting major editorial boards, like those at the Washington Post and New York Times, to weigh in on the subject.

Even if the groups manage to shame Congress into dropping the riders this time around, that is no guarantee the same riders won’t just crop up again in later appropriations bills. Muckraker will keep its eye on the process and welcomes any and all tips from other avid rider-watchers.

Conservation News Network?

The Alliance to Save Energy will hold its “Evening with the Stars” in D.C. this week and will present the Charles H. Percy award to media mogul Ted Turner for his “outstanding public service in support of environmental education.”

Muckraker is a little curious about this public service. We know Turner dropped some serious dollars on the U.N. recently but we can’t remember seeing too many environmental PSA’s during Larry King Live. Elizabeth McKinley at the Alliance says Turner’s work with the U.N. was one reason he was selected for the enviro award as was his general commitment to making the environment one of his “main priorities” at CNN. Hmm … Muckraker doesn’t watch enough CNN to know if this holds true. Any media critics or CNN junkies out there who can shed light on the situation?

Names in the News

Walt Rosenbusch takes over as director of the Minerals Management Service at the Interior Department May 17 … Sens. John Chafee (R-R.I.) and Bob Smith (R-N.H.) are getting ready to roll out a new Superfund bill … Barbara Elkus is the new “River Navigator” for the St. John’s River in Florida. What, you might ask, does a “River Navigator” do? Will Elkus spend her days lazily paddling up and down the river on a raft, Huck Finn-style? Sadly, it isn’t so. The River Navigator has the somewhat more prosaic, though vitally important, task of managing federal dollars and programs that apply to the St. John’s, recently tapped as an “American Heritage River.”