The Senate on Tuesday approved a major public lands bill that revives a popular conservation program, adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates four new national monuments.
The measure, the largest public lands bill considered by Congress in a decade, combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic, create 2,600 miles of new federal trails and add nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.
The Senate approved the bill, 92-8, sending it to the House.
Lawmakers from both parties said the bill’s most important provision was to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country. The program expired last fall after Congress could not agree on language to extend it.
Idaho conservation advocates lauded the move.
“The Land Water and Conservation Fund is a vital conservation program affecting every Idahoan,” said Craig Gehrke, Idaho director for The Wilderness Society. “I want to thank Sen. Crapo and Sen. Risch for voting for this important bipartisan legislation. While the Land Water and Conservation Fund should have never expired in the first place, today’s vote for permanent reauthorization of this program is a step in the right direction for future small-town conservation projects, improvements at our fishing and hunting sites and better access to Idaho’s public lands.”
The hodgepodge bill offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.
Even so, the bill was derailed last year after Republican Sen. Mike Lee objected, saying he wanted to exempt his home state of Utah from a law that allows the president to designate federal lands as a national monument protected from development.
Lee’s objection during a heated Senate debate in December forced lawmakers to start over in the new Congress, culminating in Tuesday’s Senate vote.
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who clashed with Lee on the Senate floor, said the vote caps four years of work to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and protect public lands.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill enhances use of public lands and water, while promoting conservation and sporting activities such as hunting and fishing.
The bill includes provisions sponsored by more than half of the senators, Murkowski said, applauding a “very, very collaborative” process.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the Land and Water Conservation Fund one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created.
The program uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and public recreation projects around the country. The fund is authorized to collect $900 million a year but generally receives less than half that amount from Congress.
“This victory was a long time in the making, and it is the result of the steadfast efforts of many who care deeply about America’s natural treasures,” Burr said Tuesday. “Protecting this program is the right thing to do for our children, grandchildren and countless generations so that they may come to enjoy the great American outdoors as we have.”
The bill creates three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service and a fourth monument overseen by the Forest Service. The three park service monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi and the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky.
The Evers site was the home of the slain civil rights leader, while Mill Springs commemorates a Civil War battlefield. Camp Nelson was used as Union Army hospital and recruiting center during the Civil War. President Donald Trump proclaimed Camp Nelson a national monument last year, but the bill gives it permanent, congressionally approved protection.
The bill also designates the former Saint Francis Dam site in California as a national memorial and monument. The dam outside Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, killing 431 people in one of the largest tragedies in California history.
“While this monument will serve as a reminder of the consequences of a failure of infrastructure, it offers a lesson going forward,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson introduced a bill last week that also sought to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as designate ten years of future funding. Idaho outdoors advocates said they believe the passage of the Senate bill could bode well for Simpson’s legislation.