Congress Finds Common Ground in Protecting Land and Water

Sends President Most Sweeping Lands Package in Quarter Century

Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

President Trump has signed into law the most sweeping lands protection package in a quarter century.  He didn’t have much choice. The Senate passed S. 47 by a vote of 92-8. The House approved the measure by an overwhelming margin as well. If the President had vetoed the bill, Congress had the votes to override him.

The, Act, renamed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act as it passed the House, protects lands in nearly every stateOver half of the lands protected as wilderness are in Utah—a place where fights over use of our public lands are as intense as anywhere in the country.  A place where the governor advocates transfer of all federal lands to the state. A place where a county commissioner led a parade of ATVs onto federal land closed to motor vehicles.

Utah is also a place whose citizens treasure the natural heritage of stunning canyons and mesas. It is a place where my friends at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance show up day after day to protect these lands. To record where wilderness-quality lands exist. To monitor the drilling, the roads and clear cutting of juniper proposed for these lands. To talk to fellow Utahns, including Navajo and other Native Americans who have honored and cared for these lands longer than anyone. 

Year after year, I went to court with my SUWA friends to block oil and gas drilling and other destruction of these lands so Congress would have the opportunity to protect them permanently under the Wilderness Act. 

And now Congress has! 

Who would have thought? 

I’ve worked as an NRDC attorney in Washington DC for over 25 years now. I came because of the good I believed government and the people who work for it deliver. We need the people who keep our courts running.  We need the people who keep our airports and air traffic safe. We need the people who keep our air and water healthy. I still believe in this good. The increasing discord and dysfunction in our nation’s capital, however, have tested my faith. With passage of this law, my spirit soared.  

The bill doesn’t address the lands at issue in litigation over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. It covers a different, but equally stunning, part of the state. A part of the state which includes the San Rafael Swell, as well as Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons of the Green River.  It took leadership in both political parties to accomplish this success.  Former Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) joined long-time wilderness champion Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to deliver something for everyone. They moved past principles and found solutions on the ground that everyone could live with. These solutions included the exchange of lands to allow the State of Utah access to resources to support its schools while protecting stunning red rock country for us all to enjoy today and tomorrow. 

There’s more to be done, both in Utah and elsewhere. On issues from immigration to sustainable energy. This brand-new law provides a shining example of what good legislating looks like. Our nation deserves this and more like it.  

About the Authors

Sharon Buccino

Senior Director, Land Division, Nature program

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