A Good Bill? Out of the Senate? Is it Bizarro Day?
When I read about the huge public lands bill that the Senate overwhelmingly approved yesterday, I kept reading for the catch. But, no, it’s a pretty great bill!
The Senate on Tuesday passed the most sweeping conservation legislation in a decade, protecting millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of wild rivers across the country and establishing four new national monuments honoring heroes including Civil War soldiers and a civil rights icon.
The 662-page measure, which passed 92 to 8, represented an old-fashioned approach to dealmaking that has largely disappeared on Capitol Hill. Senators from across the ideological spectrum celebrated home-state gains and congratulated each other for bridging the partisan divide.
“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,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The measure protects 1.3 million acres as wilderness, the nation’s most stringent protection, which prohibits even roads and motorized vehicles. It permanently withdraws more than 370,000 acres of land from mining around two national parks, including Yellowstone, and permanently authorizes a program to spend offshore-drilling revenue on conservation efforts.
The package is crammed full of provisions for nearly every senator who cast a vote Tuesday. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) lauded the fact that it will create 273,000 acres of wilderness in his state, most of it within the boundaries of two national monuments that Trump threatened to shrink. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who co-authored the bill, inserted a provision that allows native Alaskans who served in Vietnam to apply for a land allotment in their home state.
The legislation establishes four new monuments, including the Mississippi home of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers and the Mill Springs Battlefield in Kentucky, home to the decisive first Union victory in the Civil War.
John Gilroy, who directs U.S. public lands conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an interview that the package’s more than 100 provisions arose from negotiations on the local level, which provided enough momentum to overcome the typical gridlock that has come to define Capitol Hill.
“What we saw all the way through was a sincere effort to get to yes on a lot of pieces that had local support, bipartisan support and support across the two bodies,” Gilroy said. “It’s been years in the works. These are not proposals that were thought up just last week, somewhere in Washington D.C.”
Huh. Wow. Now, it’s not truly perfect. The most anti-public lands place in the United States is southeast Utah and because of the requirement in this bill that counties sign off, some of the most recalcitrant politicians there limited its impact there. Greg Walden, who is Oregon’s Republican representative, forced Ron Wyden to peel off some of the best protections for my home state. But still, this is actually a really good bill. Sure, it leaves more battles to be fought, but the idea of a path forward on public lands in an administration shockingly hostile to the entire concept is a real victory.