The Public Lands Package Passes Congress

The Public Lands Package Passes Congress

Update: The Natural Resource Management Act, S. 47, passed the House of Representatives by a 363-62 margin on the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 26. The public lands package generated strong support on both sides of the aisle, similar to its treatment in the Senate. It will now go to the president’s desk. Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law later this week after his return from Vietnam, permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and placing protections on more than 2 million acres of public lands.

On Feb. 12 the Senate handed a windfall to hunters, fishermen and all those who care about public lands. “The Natural Resources Management Act,” S. 47, passed the upper chamber of Congress in a rarely-seen 92-8 margin. It includes permanent reauthorization of the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, four new national monuments, 367 miles of wild and scenic rivers, 42,000 acres added to the National Parks system, mineral withdrawals on several special landscapes and expanding hunting, fishing and shooting on public lands.

This collection of more than 110 individual bills now must pass through the House of Representatives before going to the President’s desk to become law.

“I expect that the Natural Resources Management Act will garner a very strong and bipartisan majority in the House,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), one of the bill’s biggest proponents, told MeatEater. “Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation have become such an important part of the economy, in both red and blue districts, that I expect the vote will reflect that. In addition, despite the anti-public lands rhetoric coming out of a few faux think tanks, most people love their public lands with an intensity that makes this bill resonant in a wide swath of the nation.”

The bi-partisan nature of this lands package encourages many conservationists about its chances in the House. The effort was led in collaboration between Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), respectively the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman and ranking member.

“It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development and conservation,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation fund is broadly viewed by the conservation community as the greatest achievement of this act. The popular program, which invests royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling into public access, parks and shooting ranges, expired in September. Numerous advocates from the sporting community have worked tirelessly get the fund back on its feet. The Senate version of the reauthorization, however, does not automatically appropriate money to LWCF, meaning funding would be subject to the annual appropriation process. Less than half of the $40 billion that has accrued in the fund over 53 years has been spent on conservation, according to the Washington Post.

“This public lands package is the best example of bi-partisan respect for our public lands that I have ever seen, which should be applauded,” said Ryan Callaghan, MeatEater’s director of conservation. “However, we still need to stay on top of our representatives to see LWCF get fully funded.”

The lands package also created new wilderness areas in California, New Mexico and Utah, a boon to hunters and anglers. It also expands the boundaries of several national parks and enacts mining bans on the borders of two park units with the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act and Methow Headwaters Protection Act. The Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Special Management Area on Oregon’s famed North Umpqua River is another bill heavily promoted by fishing groups. Language in the package also makes all federal public lands explicitly open to fishing, hunting and shooting unless otherwise specified.

“As sportsmen and women, we understand all too well that success is never guaranteed—and cannot be attained without considerable effort and tenacity,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “We have come together as a community and poured blood, sweat and tears into advancing measures that represent our shared values and our collective vision.”

The outdoors community certainly has cause to celebrate the long-fought victory of getting this legislation through the Senate, but the true battle may be yet to come with debate in the House. Congress is set to go on recess next week but House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has said he will seek to advance the bill quickly once they return, preferably using the expedited process of suspension.

“This package gives our country a million acres of new wilderness, protects a million acres of public lands from future mining, permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund and balances conservation and recreation for the long term,” Grijalva told the New York Times. “It’s one of the biggest bipartisan wins for this country I’ve ever seen in Congress.”

Feature image via John Hafner.

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