Between the damage done to public lands during the recent government shutdown and the Trump administration’s attempts to shrink the size of key national parks like Bear Ears, you’d be forgiven for believing the age of public lands was coming to a close. But the Senate just passed the largest public lands bill in a decade — a massive bipartisan effort that’s all too rare in this political climate.
Officially called the Natural Resources Management Act, the measure still has to pass the House of Representatives, but according to the Washington Post, the bill “enjoys broad support” in the lower chamber. Further, White House officials have indicated that President Trump will sign the bill when it’s brought to his desk, so feel free to start celebrating, and plan a trip or ten to state and national parks.
The measure combines roughly 100 bills together into a 662-page package that greatly expands public lands and protections all over the country. Given that the text is thicker than a Henry James novel, we wouldn’t expect you to read it. So what exactly is in the measure? Here’s what you need to know about the new public lands bill.
The bill enjoyed broad support.
The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday, February 12, in a 92-8 vote. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said of the bill, “It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development, and conservation.”
Groups such as The Wilderness Society and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers—often at odds with one another regarding the use of public lands—were able to develop a package that satisfied practically all needs.
That didn’t stop several Senators from trying to tank the bill by attempting to add “poison pill” amendments. One such Senator is Utah’s Mike Lee, who blocked an effort to fast-track the bill in December and then said of the measure that it would actually hurt public lands. Per the Salt Lake Tribune, Lee said, “This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal-land policy in the West and particularly for the state of Utah.”
And yet it’s being near-universally applauded. Here’s why.
There’s something for everyone…
Per the Washington Post, there’s something for almost every Senator who voted “yes” on Tuesday.
What that means, in broad terms, is the following:
- Designating 1.3 million acres of land as wilderness, which means no motor vehicles, no roads, no significant modification of any kind.
- Adding almost 620 miles of rivers in seven states to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which protects them from damming and other development.
- Permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the funding and grant program that allows government at all levels to acquire lands for recreation and/or protection.
- The creation of a “21st Century Conservation Service Corps, which will create programs where kids and veterans will work to restore national parks and other public lands.”
- Conservation measures, including withdrawing 370,000 acres of mining concessions around two major national parks (Yellowstone in Montana and North Cascades in Washington state) and using offshore drilling revenue for conservation efforts.
- All federal lands opened to hunting, fishing, and shooting “unless otherwise specified.”
There are also several state-specific measures that benefit Indigenous Americans, including the re-authorization of Alaska’s Native allotment program for Vietnam-era veterans. The original program “gave Native individuals title to 160-acre allotments, often where they hunted or fished” and this reauthorization guarantees that those who may have missed out due to military service get to take part; further, they won’t have to prove their personal connection to the land they choose.