Senate Passes Bipartisan Bill to Protect Public Lands and Waterways

Today was a good day for public lands in the United States.

Today the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan bill that would protect millions of acres and hundreds of miles of wild river in a 92-8 vote. Pending approval by the House and the president, the bill would also make permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which The Wilderness Society says is the most important conservation and recreation program in the country.

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Advocates applauded the legislation’s passage in the Senate and pointed to its bipartisan success as an optimistic indicator that public lands are once again returning to a position that can unite Republicans and Democrats.

“Today marks an overdue but critical victory for America’s most important conservation funding program and for protecting our wild lands,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see the new Congress immediately moving bipartisan legislation that conserves our land and water for today and for future generations.”

The Natural Resources Management Act, or S.47, was introduced Jan. 8 in the Senate by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the former committee ranking member in the 115th Congress.

Not only does the public lands package have bipartisan support in the Senate, but it also bundles more than 100 public lands and water bills that reflect the diverse interests of those who love the outdoors. From hunters and anglers, to motorized-vehicle users, to equestrians and human-powered recreationists like hikers, mountain bikers and backcountry skiers—the public lands package has a little bit of something for everyone.

“The public lands package is huge,” said Kirsten Blackburn, advocacy manager of The Conservation Alliance, which links businesses in the outdoor industry to the conservation community. Eight of the alliance’s priorities for public lands conservation and recreation—projects the nonprofit has been working on for more than a decade—were addressed in the package. “I’m hopeful that it’s a move in the right direction, and folks are beginning to put politics aside for a little bit and realize that public lands are important to their constituents and important to Americans.”

The centerpiece of the public lands package is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Established in 1964, the LWCF takes earnings from offshore energy development—in theory, up to $900 million per year in royalties—and invests them in public lands. The money has been used to acquire lands and create opportunities for recreation across the country—the LWCF Coalition estimates the fund has a reach that extends to nearly every county in the nation. It’s had a hand in creating and maintaining state and local parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, bikeways, boat ramps and more.

“It was conceived as this elegant offset for energy development,” said Amy Lindholm, manager of the LWCF Coalition on staff at the Appalachian Mountain Club. “You’re basically taking some of the profit from drawing down a resource and you’re reinvesting that in a lasting a resource for all the public to enjoy.”

The fund has been a significant resource and tool to help land managers and nonprofits with conservation work. But it has two shortcomings. First, Lindholm said that throughout its lifespan Congress has diverted, on average, between one-half and two-thirds of the LWCF funding. That’s a trend Lindholm hopes to change. But before she or anyone can secure permanent full funding, the LWCF must exist. That’s the second problem. After 54 years, congress let the LWCF expire on Sept. 30, 2018. For every day of its expiration, Lindholm said the fund has lost $2.5 million that would have potentially been used for conservation.

“It’s up to over $300 million that has been lost since it expired,” said Lindholm. “It casts such a chill over the pipeline of projects. These are complex real estate deals. It’s hard work, even in the best of times, and the funding fluctuates wildly.”

After the LWCF secures permanent reauthorization with the passage of the Natural Resources Management Act, Lindholm said the next step will be to enact a piece of legislation aimed to prevent Congress from diverting money away from the LWCF. “If we can get this permanent reauthorization done, then we can focus the conversation 100 percent on the dedicated funding issue,” said Lindholm.

The LWCF may have the most far-reaching consequences of any legislation within the package, but the bulk of the 662 pages in the bill are devoted to designating public land for conservation and recreation. One of the most expansive public land designations is the Emery County Public Land Management Act, in Utah, which would protect a little less than a million acres of public land in the rugged and iconic San Rafael Swell with Recreation and Wilderness Area designations. The Emery County Act would designate 63 miles of Utah’s Green River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“All of these places, our community [of outdoors people] were consulted,” Blackburn said. “The mountain bikers, and the backcountry skiers, and the climbers, and the conservationists, they had a voice in the development of these pieces.”

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Act, which protects more than 700,000 acres in the California deserts, designates 77 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers, and expands Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, is also in the public lands package. “She’s been introducing this bill for well over 10 years,” Blackburn said.

And that’s just a taste of what else is contained in the bill:

  • Some 30,000 acres in Oregon would be designated as the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness.
  • Washington’s Mountains to Sound Greenway would be preserved as a National Heritage Area.
  • Just over 350 acres near Los Angeles would be conserved as a National Memorial and Monument in memory of the nearly 500 people who were killed when the St. Francis Dam burst in 1928.
  • A town in Colorado would enjoy better access to their water source.
  • Approximately 99,653 acres of Oregon land would become the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Special Management Area in the name of World War II veteran named Frank Moore, who, together with his wife, Jeanne, devoted his life to the stewardship of free-flowing rivers and steelhead salmon habitat.
  • The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act, which provides opportunities for young people and veterans in national service positions to conserve and restore public lands, would be updated with a portion of the bill introduced last Congress by the late Sen. John McCain.
  • Access for hunters and anglers would be expanded with a Congressional Declaration of National Policy to “facilitate the expansion and enhancement of hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting on federal land.”
  • All fourth-graders, or any homeschooled 10-year-old child, and their families would have an opportunity to explore national parks and other federal public lands, for free, thanks to the Every Kid Outdoors Act. The aim is to dole out park passes to these children and encourage them to experience public lands at a young age.

Legislation for public lands does not come around often, said Mary Mitsos, the executive director of the National Forest Foundation. “That’s why I think this package is just so exciting. It’s rare to get this kind of bipartisan support for our public lands, and I think that is important for the public to know. If, as a citizen, you care about public lands of all stripes, you need to voice your opinion and show your support.”

“REI is happy to be part of a broad community of stakeholders, from across the political spectrum, that has been advocating for this historic piece of legislation,” said REI’s Director of Government and Community Affairs Marc Berejka. “The size of the Senate vote in favor of passage shows just how much bipartisan support there can be for our public lands and waters.  It’s been great to see the bipartisan leadership on the package, too.  It will be a truly great day when the House passes this bill and the president signs it into law.”

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