Senate Passes Decade’s Biggest Public Lands Bill, Adding 1.3 Million Acres of Wilderness, About Half in SoCal

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A hiker walks through Joshua Tree National Park on Nov. 21, 2015.(Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A hiker walks through Joshua Tree National Park on Nov. 21, 2015.(Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

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 five 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, add 2,600 miles of new federal trails and create 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.

Nearly half of the newly protected lands — more than 515,700 acres — would be in the Southern California desert, including expansions of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.

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.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a pre-eminent program for access to public lands” for more than 50 years, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The program has supported more than 42,000 state and local projects throughout the U.S. since its creation in 1964.

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.

She and other senators called the Land and Water Conservation Fund one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created.

The bill encompasses the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would affect 716,000 acres of Southern California desert.

The act creates eight new wilderness areas covering 280,000 acres and expands the Death Valley National Park and Wilderness, Joshua Tree National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and San Gorgonio Wilderness. Other protections would be expanded in Inyo and Imperial counties, and 77 miles of waterways established as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Over 200,000 acres of existing off-highway vehicle recreational land would also be permanently designated for trail riding.

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.

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,” said Sen Richard Burr, R-N.C. “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 two others overseen by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, respectively. 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 sets aside 850 acres in central Utah as the Jurassic National Monument, designed to enhance the area’s “paleontological, scientific, educational and recreational resources.”

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