On Feb. 12, the U.S. Senate, by an overwhelming 92-8 margin, passed an omnibus package that rolled together more than 100 separate public land and water bills, some of which had languished for more than a decade.
As an academic specializing in U.S. public lands, I consider S.47, the Natural Resources Management Act, to be an epic conservation achievement.
If passed by the House and signed by the president, as expected, it will add 1.3 million acres to the nation’s wilderness preservation system, protect 300,000 acres in a new recreation area in Utah’s iconic San Rafael Swell, designate 620 miles of wild and scenic rivers, create several new national monuments, expand several national parks and protect buffer areas around several others from mining.
Even more importantly, the bill will permanently reauthorize the invaluable Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired in September. This fund collects royalties from offshore drilling and uses them to support public land acquisition and recreational infrastructure at the local, state and federal levels. Since its inception in 1965, it has disbursed more than $18 billion for everything from local soccer fields to national park expansions.
In the current context of environmental deregulation, unbridled resource development on public land, pending oil leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the unprecedented stripping of national monument status from two million acres in Utah, this bill is a rare piece of good news on the conservation front.
Interestingly, 45 of 53 Republican senators supported this bill, even though most of them had previously voted for a 2015 budget amendment to transfer some of those same federal lands to the states to dispense with as they please. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) celebrated this latest bill’s passage even after earning a lifetime score of 2 percent from the League of Conservation Voters; included in that abysmal score is his yes vote on the 2015 transfer.
Why the turn-around?
First, privatizing, transferring or mistreating public lands is really bad politics. It simply has no constituency besides a few libertarian think-tanks, some anti-government militia and the resource extraction industries. The public clearly loves federal lands and members of Congress are slowly learning that they attack them at their peril.
When the onslaught of anti-public lands bills, especially in the House, began around 2011, a sleeping giant seems to have awoken in the building of a broad coalition of environmentalists, sportsmen, recreationists, the outdoor industry, Native Americans, gateway communities whose economies depend on public lands, and pretty much everyone else who loves and enjoys them. There are few issues in polarized America that enjoy such sturdy bipartisan support.
Secondly, the Democrat’s midterm takeover of the House and the ascension of public lands stalwart Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) as chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources has created more political space for conservation. Perhaps Senate Republicans, never quite as radical or impractical as their House colleagues, are realizing that no major anti-public lands bill will pass anytime soon. They have decided, in effect, that if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em, and bask in the warm glow of an approving public.
Yet as encouraging a moment as this is, the tide has by no means permanently turned in favor of public lands. The Bears Ears National Monument still stands at about 15 percent its former size. Oil exploration “thumper” trucks remain poised on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And concerns over biodiversity and endangered species still often get swept aside in the relentless drive to log, mine and drill on as much unprotected federal land as possible.
The need for the public to be vigilant in defense of public lands has not lessened one bit.
Steven Davis is a professor of political science at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, and the author of “In Defense of Public Lands: The Case Against Privatization and Transfer” (Temple University Press, 2018).