Monumental Lands Package Clears House, Heads to Trump

Measure would permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, ban mining near Yellowstone

By Tristan Scott
Rafting along the Middle Fork Flathead River. Beacon File Photo

In the unlikely event you tuned into C-SPAN’s live stream on Feb. 26, you saw a bipartisan conga line of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives making a pitch for public lands.

For stakeholders on both sides of the political aisle, it was a refreshing sight, particularly given the polarized political climate that too often overshadows popular pieces of legislation with gridlock and ingrained party differences.

But that didn’t happen this week when, in passing the largest conservation legislation in a decade, an oft-divided House furnished the public lands package with bipartisan support. In doing so, lawmakers sent a message to their constituents that protecting millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of wild rivers is good for the environment and for the economy.

The Natural Resources Management Act (S.47) passed by a wide margin of 363-62, and included the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has supported more than 42,000 state and local projects throughout the U.S. since its creation in 1964. The program, one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created, uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and recreation projects.

The vote came on the heels of the U.S. Senate handily passing the bill 92-8, and it now goes to President Donald Trump’s desk. He is expected to sign it, and must do so within 10 days.

The package will have immediate benefits for the outdoor recreation community, which sent more than 30,000 messages to legislators in recent weeks in support of the package.

“The vote by the House — 363-62, coming on the heels of the Senate’s overwhelming 92-8 vote — proves that our public lands and waters are a cornerstone upon which legislators from both parties can come together. This is a watershed moment for North American conservation in the 21st century,” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said of a bill that comprised more than 100 individual laws and spanned 662 pages.

Included in the omnibus public lands bill, which passed on Feb. 12, was a measure to reauthorize the LWCF in perpetuity, and another to block a proposed gold mine on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park.

“Permanently protecting the gateway to Yellowstone and permanently reauthorizing the LWCF will help preserve and expand public access to our public lands. I strongly urge passage of this bill that’s so important to Montana,” Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, said as he addressed colleagues ahead of the vote.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a longtime supporter of public lands and permanent reauthorization of LWCF, echoed the Republican congressman’s sentiments.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a driver of Montana’s $7 billion outdoor economy,” Tester said. “Hunters, hikers, and anglers will now have the long-term certainty they need to increase public access to our public lands and preserve these outdoor spaces for generations to come.”

Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines also applauded the House passage of the bipartisan public lands package, and helped secure commitment from Senate leadership to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

“This bipartisan public lands package is a historic win for conservation in Montana and across our nation, and after today, it’s one step closer to becoming law,” Daines said. “I’m very glad to see the House pass this important package to help protect our public lands for generations to come, and I look forward to President Trump signing it into law.”

Between 2005 and 2014, Montana received $240.3 million in investments from LWCF funds, which contributed to the purchase of more than 800 recreational sites across Montana, including city parks, trails and ball fields, tennis courts and municipal swimming pools.

Established by Congress in 1964 to conserve open spaces, fish and wildlife habitat, and cultural, historic and recreation sites, the LWCF uses a portion of royalties from offshore oil development. The law allows funding of up to $900 million, but that has only happened twice in the fund’s 54-year history. Congress funded LWCF at $425 million this fiscal year, but the program expired Sept. 30.

A major highlight of the lands package is the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act to permanently withdraw federal mineral rights on roughly 30,000 acres of the Gallatin National Forest and prevent proposed mines from expanding onto unclaimed public land adjacent to the park. Tester worked with a coalition of local residents and small-businesses owners to craft and introduce the bill after a pair of mining companies announced plans to expand their operations around the Paradise Valley back in 2015.

“Passage of the public lands package is a demonstration of the deep affection with which Americans regard their public lands,” Adam Cramer, executive director of Outdoor Alliance, said. “Across the country, protecting treasured places is an idea with incredibly deep bipartisan support, and thanks to outreach of and advocacy from people across the country, lawmakers are starting to get that message. We’re fired up to see the package through the House and hopeful for more good things to come.”

The Natural Resources Management Act included other provisions such as:

The Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Special Management Area Designation Act, which protects some 100,000 acres on Oregon’s Steamboat Creek, an important spawning tributary of the North Umpqua River used by wild summer steelhead and spring Chinook.

The Oregon Wildlands Act, which designates more than 250 new miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, in iconic fisheries like the Rogue, Chetco, Elk, and Molalla basins, and creates new wilderness in the Devil’s Staircase area east of Reedsport.

Methow Headwaters Protection Act, which places 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the state of Washington’s Upper Methow Valley off limits to large-scale mining. This much-needed measure is critical to protect crucial coldwater habitat for rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, bull trout, mountain whitefish, Chinook salmon, and steelhead.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which prohibits new mining claims at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park. Fisheries in the area include the North Fork of Sixmile Creek drainage, which supports an important population of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, as well as headwater streams that feed the Yellowstone River, a world-renowned blue ribbon trout river.

The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, which better protects some 76 miles of streams, including segments of Deep Creek, which provides a rare opportunity for freshwater fishing in Southern California and is one of the region’s few designated Wild Trout streams. The Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designations conferred by this bill will safeguard and enhance important habitat for fish and other species, fishing and other recreational opportunities, and sources of drinking water for downstream communities.

Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Act, which includes federal authorizations needed to advance Washington’s Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a balanced package of actions that will restore hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead to the basin, improve water quality and quantity, and support a healthy agricultural and recreational economy. The plan was agreed upon by a diverse coalition of conservation groups, irrigators, farmers, sportsmen and women, local, state, and federal governments and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act, which designates areas within New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument as wilderness areas.  The Rio San Antonio Wilderness area (8,120 acres) and the Cerro Del Yuta Wilderness area (13,240 acres) will benefit public land conservation and local economies.

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