Public Lands and Waters Bring a Moment of Unity

While not without flaws, a new bill with bipartisan support is a giant step forward in protecting our natural legacy across the nation.

The Wedge Overlook in Utah’s San Rafael Swell

Nicholas Gottlieb/BLM

UPDATE: On February 27, the House of Representatives passed the bill.

In an overwhelming bipartisan vote of confidence in the future of public lands and waters, the Senate passed one of the most important wilderness protection bills in a quarter century on Tuesday, safeguarding more than 1.3 million acres of pristine natural habitat and nearly 620 miles of rivers.

The legislation permanently takes mining off the table for broad reaches of public lands in Montana and Washington State, protecting nearby Yellowstone and North Cascades National Parks from the threat of toxic mining waste. And it authorizes permanent financing—from oil and gas royalties paid to the federal government—for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides crucial grants supporting federal, state, and local conservation programs nationwide.

At a time when political rancor and partisan divisions can seem to stymie progress at every turn in Washington, D.C., the Natural Resources Management Act garnered vigorous support on both sides of the aisle, with 92 senators voting in favor of the act and 8 Republicans opposed. The bill reportedly enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House as well, where it’s expected to come up for a vote shortly after representatives return from a brief mid-February recess.

Senate passage of this landmark lands act cuts against the false narrative that Republicans and Democrats can’t work together. It’s a triumph of political will and a tribute to what our elected leaders can accomplish when they reach across partisan lines to put the national interest first.

Cosponsored by Republican Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, the 662-page bill, wrote the Washington Post, represents “an old-fashioned approach to dealmaking that has largely disappeared on Capitol Hill.”

Far from out of date, the art of compromise is essential to a functioning democracy. The support for this legislation shows the kind of progress we can make when we find common ground around the values and interests we share and work for the greater good, even when it means accepting less than we might have hoped for today, knowing we’ll have the chance to come back for more tomorrow. That’s the spirit that undergirds support for this bill from a broad range of stakeholders, including indigenous groups, anglers, conservationists, hunters, local and state officials, and others.

This is not a perfect bill. Under a provision from Senator Murkowski, the legislation would authorize the privatization of hundreds of thousands of acres of federal lands in Alaska. The senator argued her provision was needed to reopen a last chance that Congress created in 1971 when it sunset a pre-statehood Alaska native homesteading law. Some eligible residents missed that chance because of military service.

We fully support providing that chance once again to the qualifying veterans, estimated at a few hundred, who missed their opportunity in 1971 while serving—and also missed two subsequent reopenings. But the provision in the current legislation would open the floodgates for 4,000 or more other Alaskans also to acquire public lands. At the rate of 160 acres per person, the bill would create new entitlements that could privatize two-thirds of a million acres. That means lands that belong to the American people, that belong to you and me, could be lost—parceled off into subdivisions, commercially developed or sold for mining or oil and gas drilling. These are lands Congress never intended to be lost from our great American natural heritage.

That’s an unconscionable backdoor assault on our public lands. It has no place in this landmark legislation. When it goes to the House, we urge that the provision be fixed, so it does what Senator Murkowski told her colleagues it would—provide a final chance for the Alaska native veterans that Congress intended to have one in 1971—but only for them.

Help stop oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

It would be a mistake, though, to allow this flawed provision to overshadow the broader significance of the Natural Resources Management Act for every American. At the heart of this package is a measure to protect, as designated wilderness lands, nearly three-quarters of a million acres of Utah’s breathtaking San Rafael Swell as well as the Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons in scenic Emery County.

Safeguarding this iconic red rock landscape is a truly monumental achievement that caps a goal NRDC has been working toward for more than 30 years. I’m proud of the role NRDC played in negotiating this landmark achievement, among the most important in NRDC’s history. 

I also can’t overstate the importance of the dogged efforts of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who has championed protections for Utah’s wild places for decades. The second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Durbin worked closely on the package with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. He retired at the end of 2018 after serving as a U.S. senator for 41 years, leaving a legacy burnished by this landmark legislation. 

The legislation also provides wilderness protection for roughly half a million acres in California, Montana, Washington State, and elsewhere. Together, the 1.3 million acres represent one of the largest single additions of wilderness lands since the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and the Mojave National Monument.

That’s important. Wilderness designation provides the highest level of federal safeguards to enable future generations to experience the natural splendor of this great country much as the first Americans knew it, by protecting lands from the building of roads, the use of motorized vehicles, commercial development, or industrial uses.

The legislation protects nearly 620 miles of rivers across seven states, granting Wild and Scenic River designations to waterways in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

The new bill would protect 99,653 acres of fish habitat in the North Umpqua River watershed by creating the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Management Area.

BLM Oregon and Washington

Part of the mission of our public lands is to help tell the story of the nation through the special places we designate as national monuments. This legislation enshrines several new national monuments, including the home of the Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary and voting rights advocate who was murdered outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home; and Camp Nelson, a Civil War supply depot and hospital in Kentucky that became a recruitment and training camp for African American volunteers in the Union Army.

The bill significantly expands five existing national parks, including California’s Death Valley and the Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia. It authorizes $6.5 million a year through 2022 to help conserve millions of acres of land critical to more than 380 species of migrating birds that travel between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. And it gives congressional authority to the Obama-era Every Kid Outdoors program, providing free entry into national parks for fourth-graders and their families.

Our public lands and waters are a public trust, part of the endowment our ancestors left us and we, in turn, leave to our children. The Natural Resources Management Act has its flaws. By and large, though, it’s a giant step forward in the natural legacy we share today and will entrust to others tomorrow. We look forward to seeing this legislation passed soon by the House and signed into law by President Trump.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

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