Congress Approves Decade’s Largest Public Lands Bill, Expanding Protections in SoCal Deserts

A Joshua tree stands at Joshua Tree National Park on Jan. 4, 2019. (Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

A Joshua tree stands at Joshua Tree National Park on Jan. 4, 2019. (Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

A wide-ranging 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 has won congressional approval.

The measure is the largest public lands bill approved by Congress in more than a decade. The House passed the bill Tuesday, 363-62, sending it to the White House for the president’s signature.

The bill combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic 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 bill would 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.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the bill represents Congress at its best and “truly gives the American people something to be excited about.”

Grijalva called the bill as “a massive win” for conservation across the United States.

“Everyone from inner cities to suburbs to rural communities wins when we work together to preserve the outdoors,” he said.

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the committee’s top Republican, also hailed the bill and said it will expand access to public lands, offering “wins for America’s sportsmen, hunters and fishermen.”

The bill establishes national monuments “the right way,” through congressional action rather than executive order, Bishop said, and “communicates a profound respect for local decision-making.”

The hodgepodge bill offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.

It 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 effort was derailed last year after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected, saying he wanted to exempt his state 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 House vote.

Environmental groups and lawmakers from both parties said they were especially proud the bill reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, 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.

“Public lands bring Americans together, and that’s why Republicans and Democrats in the House voted overwhelmingly today for a bill that ensures the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be around for our kids and grandkids,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. “Today’s historic vote, following a 92-8 vote in the Senate, means that more people can have access to hiking trails, city parks and wild landscapes.”

“In an era when bipartisanship remains elusive, conservation is a rare issue that still brings Congress together,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. The bipartisan public lands package “represents a historic victory for our wildlife heritage and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe,” he said.

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 new monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi; the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky; the former Saint Francis Dam site in Southern California; and the Jurassic National Monument in Utah.

The dam outside Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, killing 431 people in one of the largest tragedies in California history.

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