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A bright spot in dark times: Congress advances a major public-lands package

The White House is expected to give its blessing to what, by general agreement of the environmental commentariat, is the most extensive advance in protecting public lands and waters for at least 10 years.

REUTERS/Zach Gibson
The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to add nearly 700,000 acres to the people’s recreation and conservation lands.
As the news from Washington swirled around examples of political paralysis, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to add nearly 700,000 acres to the people’s recreation and conservation lands.

Also, to expand by 1.3 million acres the public lands designated for especially strict protections as wilderness areas.

Also, to enlarge the nation’s Wild and Scenic Rivers inventory by 620 miles of waterway in seven states. Also, to protect rivers in the Yellowstone ecosystem, as well in Washington and Oregon, from the ravages of hardrock mining drainage, by permanently withdrawing the right to extract minerals on adjoining federal lands.

Also, to give permanent, rather than periodic, authorization to the Land and Water Conservation fund, in which revenues from offshore oil production — now running about a billion dollars per year — are to be  reserved for projects like the foregoing.

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There is more, much more, in the 660-some pages of S. 47, the Natural Resources Management Act, for which Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell provided principal leadership. But now you know the highlights.

These are exactly the sorts of federal effort to which Donald Trump has displayed indifference if not mockery and sometimes a raging hostility. And yet the White House is expected to give its blessing to what, by general agreement of the environmental commentariat, is the most extensive advance in protecting public lands and waters for at least 10 years. (Which includes, of course, the tenure of Trump’s predecessor.)

Or, possibly, for an entire generation. That’s the judgment over at the Washington Post, whose writers found something like redemption for American governance in this bipartisan melding of more than 100 separate bills into a single instrument that gained 92 votes (all the Democrats and Independents, plus 45 Republicans):

There were compromises that delivered a little something for everyone across the ideological spectrum, even if no one really got everything they wanted. Unlike so much legislation that gets drafted at the last minute and passed in the middle of the night, this circulated and percolated for years. There were hearings, markups and good-faith negotiations. When a handful of holdouts tried to insert poison pills during the amendment process to torpedo the bill, Republicans and Democrats stuck together. It was old-school and harked back to a time when Congress worked.

The result is that 1.3 million acres are poised to be newly designated as wilderness, 370,000 acres just outside two national parks would be saved from mining, 620 miles of river in seven states would be protected from damming and development, and more than 380 species of birds would see their habitats protected through 2022. Amazingly, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the legislation would wind up saving money for taxpayers [about $9 million]. The bill is expected to sail through the House after the Presidents’ Day recess, and the White House has signaled support.

The nays, for the record, were cast by Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Texas’ Ted Cruz, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe and James Lankford, Utah’s Mike Lee, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Nebraska’s Benjamin Sasse. But one can’t help but note that the yeas’ tally makes the measure more than veto-proof, should the White House change course.

Big gains in the Southwest

It is difficult to discern any pattern in the opponents’ objections. The most prominent was offered by Utah’s Lee, who briefly killed the bill in December over his insistence on the zany idea that the Beehive State should be exempted from further creation of national monuments by presidential authority.

Now it’s poised to get one by Congressional action: the 2,500-acre Jurassic National Monument. Not a whole lot of land, about four square miles, but it is said to have “one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur bones in the world,” according to a post at And now its “paleontological, scientific, educational and recreational resources” will be preserved.

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This action looks especially tiny compared to the extension of wilderness designation to some 661,000 acres — more than half the new wilderness in the entire bill — of just one Utah county, Emery (which got back 75,000 other acres it can now use for development).

After Utah, the biggest wilderness gainer appears to be New Mexico, with more than a quarter-million acres in a dozen parcels, 10 at the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and two at the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

And though it’s not quite the same level of protection as wilderness or national monument status, the permanent withdrawal from development of mineral rights on more than 370,000 acres — 30,000 of them on U.S. Forest Service land adjoining Yellowstone National Park, the rest uncomfortably close to North Cascades National Park in Washington state, on Flagg Mountain and above the Methow River.

This withdrawal is, of course, the kind of bold and long overdue stroke that was moving toward final approval for protection of the Boundary Waters and Rainy River watersheds as Trump took office, only to be reversed in a giveaway to the holders of expired mineral leases.

Unfortunately, the Yellowstone-area withdrawal required unanimous support of the Congressional delegation in Montana — the Treasure State, with a history and culture shaped even more deeply by mining than Minnesota’s, where the delegation is split and likely to remain so.

Wild and scenic rivers

Regarding S.47’s advances on stream protection, I can’t do better than quote from the expert analysis at American Rivers, which counts 620 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers in seven states:

  • 56 miles of new designations the for tributaries for the Rogue River, the Molalla, and Elk Rivers in Oregon;
  • 110 miles of the Wood-Pawcatuck Rivers in Rhode Island and Connecticut;
  • 76 miles of Amargosa River, Deep Creek, Surprise Canyon and other desert streams in California;
  • 63 miles of the Green River in Utah;
  • 62 miles of the Farmington River and Salmon Brook in Connecticut;
  • 52.8 miles of the Nashua, Squannacook and Nissitissit Rivers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The new national monuments, in addition to the Jurassic in Utah, includes the Medgar and Myrlie Evers home in Mississippi, to honor their work for civil rights, and two Civil War sites in Kentucky: the battlefield at Mill Springs, and a Union Army hospital and recruiting venue at Camp Nelson. Also, the site of the Saint Francis Dam near Los Angeles, whose collapse in 1928 took 431 lives.

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Additions  of new acreage to a half-dozen existing federal properties include major expansions at Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, both in California, and Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia.

But in general, the provisions dealing with park holdings tended to be minor adjustments to boundaries, shifts in management authority, or approval of land exchanges to address ownership of non-federal parcels with park units.

Changes at Voyageurs National Park

This was the case in the only Minnesota example I found in the bill, concerning Voyageurs National Park (pages 394-397). Finding the language there a bit opaque, I called on Christine Goepfert, associate director for the Midwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association, for an explanation.

She told me that for historical reasons, unrelated to mining claims or mineral leases, the Bureau of Land Management has retained authority over several dozen islands within the park, although the National Park Service has been the actual manager. S. 47 effectively transfers full control of these islands from the BLM to the NPS.

Also, the bill authorizes an exchange involving a parcel of state-owned land within the park boundary and a federal parcel that lies beyond. There has been local interest in the swap, she said, especially among hunters; shooting game is illegal in national parks, even on parcels that lie outside the park proper.

In all, Goepfert said, the changes authorized by the new bill bring no changes to the park’s contiguous boundary, nor any other modifications that would be notable to the average park visitor. However, she said they illustrate the importance of permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has been allowed to expire from time to time — twice in the last three years, in fact.

Congress still retains authority to set the level of annual expenditures, and typically has spent only about half the funds potentially available to both federal and state programs. But removing the fundamental uncertainty of authorization, Goepfert said, raises the confidence of land managers that when opportunities for small boundary adjustments and land exchanges arise, there will be LWCF money to get the deal done.