Both sides of the political aisle in the House of Representatives lauded an omnibus package of public lands legislation on Tuesday before passing the measure 363-62.
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, highlighted the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act in his floor speech, noting it represented the will of the local community.
“The consensus was clear — they don’t want mining in the Paradise Valley,” Gianforte said. “This will permanently ban mining on 30,000 acres of public land just outside Yellowstone National Park.”
Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester authored the mining ban, which was also co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Daines. The omnibus bill passed the Senate on Feb. 12, 92-8.
All three Montana members loudly supported the package’s signature measure, permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That program can use up to $900 million in royalty payments for federal offshore energy leases for conservation projects ranging from wildlife habitat purchases to city park improvements. Congress let the program expire in 2015 after 50 years of popular success, reauthorizing it on a short-term basis several times. Tuesday’s version would give it permanent status.
“Almost 20 years ago, John Dingell led the first effort to permanently reauthorize LWCF,” said Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, widow of the long-time Democratic congressman who championed the program. “He’s looking from up above and saying ‘Well done.’”
“Permanent re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund will help countless African American communities across the country connect to nature,” Outdoor Afro CEI Rue Mapp said in an email “Yes, LWCF protects the places we see on paintings and postcards. But it also protects the places we teach our kids to ride bikes and play baseball. LWCF has for decades helped expand access and equity for outdoor recreation opportunities. The Outdoor Afro community celebrates its long overdue permanence.”
S. 47 collected almost 120 measures across more than 600 pages. It included about 1 million acres of new wilderness, expansion of three national parks, revocation of mineral mining rights on 340,000 acres of federal land (including the Yellowstone provision), and new accounting of legal fees paid to organizations successfully suing the government through the Equal Access to Justice Act.
Dingell noted the Land and Water Conservation Fund had provided $3.9 billion dollars for more than 40,000 projects since it started in 1965. Every dollar invested returned $4 in economic value, Dingell said.
But those dollars prompted a multi-year fight when Republicans controlled the House to change how the money was distributed. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah urged his Republican colleagues to support the bill because “for the first time there are real reforms of LWCF.” In particular, he called out the requirement that at least 40 percent of its funds go to state and local funds and 3 percent be targeted at opening access to landlocked federal lands.
“Congress is finally ready to act,” Bishop said. “We should not refuse the solutions in front of us right now.”
In Missoula, Wilderness Watch Director George Nickas criticized Bishop’s construction of the bill when he chaired the House Natural Resources Committee.
“The Democrats in the House have decided to rubber-stamp what they’ve been given, and most of the conservation community is refusing to advocate to remove the more controversial provisions,” Nickas said. “LWCF was going to pass on its own. And the other good parts could be achieved without this omnibus. The bad parts would never pass on their own.”
In particular, Nickas spotlighted the bill’s Section. 2410, which allows the Secretary of the Interior to designate volunteers to kill wildlife in national parks. He also objected to wilderness designations that included permitting the use of paragliders and permanent rock-climbing bolt anchors.
National Parks Conservation Association legislative affairs director Ani Kameenui said provisions like the volunteer hunting rule helped get the bill passed.
“It’s concessions like those that made the bill as bipartisan as it is,” Kameenui said. “We’re thrilled with the overall package and increased protection for parks and public lands across the board.”
The bill now goes to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.