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Senate Passes Massive Public Lands Conservation Bill

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Death Valley National Park ranger and a group of students. The new bill codifies an Obama-era act that allows students and their families to visit national parks for free. NPS / Kurt and Edwige Moses

In a rare bipartisan push, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a major public lands package on Tuesday.

The Natural Resources Management Act, approved 92-8, establishes 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, adds 694,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas, creates four new national monuments, among other important conservation measures, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who introduced the bill with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).


Significantly, the Cantwell-Murkowski package also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is considered America's most important conservation and recreation program.

The LWCF was established by Congress in 1964 and is funded by fees and royalties from federal offshore oil and gas leases. More than 42,000 state and local projects across the country are supported by the program but it expired last September because Congress failed to reauthorize and fund the program.

"The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a pre-eminent program for access to public lands," Cantwell said in a press release. "It gives local communities the tools and resources to manage public lands, to give more access to the American people, to do the things that will help us grow jobs and preserve against a very challenging and threatening climate."

The measure is the largest public lands bill considered by Congress in a decade, the Associated Press noted. The 662-page document contains more than 110 individual bills, including provisions sponsored by dozens of senators on both sides of the aisle.

Murkowski told the AP it was a "very, very collaborative" process.

Other notable provisions include 367 miles of new " Wild & Scenic Rivers" and 2,600 miles of new national trails. The Washington Post also pointed out that the bill includes funds for the the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act through 2022 to provide habitat protection for more than 380 bird species; a permanent mining ban on 370,000 acres around Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks; and codification of the Obama-era Every Kid Outdoors Act that allows free admission to national parks for fourth graders and their families.

The new national monuments proposed by the bill include the Mississippi home of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers, as well as the Mill Springs Civil War battlefield in Kentucky.

What's more, the Congressional Budget Office projects the bill will save taxpayers $9 million, the Post reported.

It now heads to the House of Representatives, which is expected to "quickly" take up the bill and pass it, Cantwell's office said in the release.

The Senate's overwhelming support of the bill is contrasted by the Trump administration's drastic slashing public lands in favor of mining, drilling and other development. Incidentally, the Post reported that "White House officials have indicated privately that the president will sign it."

Environmental groups and public lands advocates applauded the upper chamber's efforts.

"The Republican-led Congress should have never let LWCF expire as they did last September, and while this package is not perfect, we welcome the Senate's passage of this bipartisan legislation, which would permanently reauthorize LWCF and protect millions of acres of lands and waters," League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski said in an issued statement. "We will also continue to urge Congress to enact full, dedicated funding for LWCF, in addition to permanent reauthorization, to end the chronic underfunding of this critical program."

Garett Reppenhagen, an Iraq war veteran and the western states director of the Vet Voice Foundation, urged the House to swiftly take up and pass the public lands package.

"It has been a hard, uphill battle against the White House and Republican leadership, but we are pleased that LWCF is one step closer to reauthorization," Reppenhagen said. "This program is essential for protecting and preserving lands that veterans depend on when they come home, and for maintaining our historic battlefields for future generation to learn from. This cannot wait any longer, and we urge the House to immediately take this bill up so it can be signed into law."

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