The Senate passed an omnibus public lands bill on a vote of 92-8 on Tuesday, allowing permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and blocking a proposed gold mine on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.
“Everybody is crying,” said Chico Hot Springs owner Colin Davis, who led a coalition of 400 Paradise Valley businesses supporting the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. “It’s been a long couple years.”
Davis was on a conference call with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, as the vote tally was coming down Tuesday afternoon. Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte also backed the Yellowstone Gateway and LWCF measures.
“It’s no secret that Washington is broken, but today is a red-letter day,” Tester said. “Both parties worked together.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was first approved in 1964 and reauthorized in 1990. It’s allowed to spend up to $900 million in royalties from off-shore energy lease revenue, although it’s rarely been allocated that full amount.
Congress let LWCF lapse in 2015, keeping it on temporary status until completely dropping it in 2018. A majority of Congress had planned to restart it with $425 million last May, but then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke only recommended allocating $8.1 million. Legislation to restart it nearly passed at the end of last year, but was blocked by a single senator in December.
Tester said the new version is permanently reauthorized, but will still have to go through annual appropriations for its spending capacity.
In the House, Gianforte praised passage of the two Montana measures and expected his colleagues would do the same.
“The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act will help preserve and expand public access to our public lands,” Gianforte said in an email. “I urge House leaders to keep the momentum going and quickly bring up this public lands package for a vote.”
LWCF provides money to improve public lands by consolidating checkerboarded ownership patterns, funding fishing access sites and wildlife refuges, and underwriting the costs of park construction. Between 2014 and 2017, it was responsible for conserving 491,000 acres in 42 states.
Tester said the fund had been particularly beneficial to states west of the Mississippi River that have lots of public land. But he added the new version of the bill also assists places like the Eastern Seaboard where climate change has threatened to erode popular beaches.
Mining interests have tried to open gold explorations on public land north of Gardiner for years. Most recently, claim holders attempted to start a mining project in 2015 that local residents feared would threaten the quality of the Yellowstone River and change the character of the scenic valley.
Zinke temporarily suspended mining permits for the project last summer, but the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act permanently withdraws mineral rights on 30,000 acres in the area.
“We’ve got … 120 plus bills (in the omnibus),” Daines said in a press conference on Tuesday. “Putting them together into a package - it’s literally hundreds of years of effort that just got moved through the US Senate here."
Daines noted that Senate Bill 47 included a provision to help gain access to more than 2 million acres of public land that are landlocked by surrounding private property, as well as a bill to account for and publish payments made through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows private parties to recover their costs of successfully suing the federal government. Another new requirement makes federal land managers respect state management authority of wildlife habitat and private property rights. And one allows the permitting or leasing of federal land for shooting and target ranges.
“This is good news for all sportsmen concerned about access to places to hunt, fish, target shoot and recreate on public lands,” Boone and Crockett Club President Timothy Brady said in an email provided by Daines. “Hunters and recreational shooters need Congress’ help and today was a good first step. This package is a testament of the strength and unity of the sportsmen's community, and we urge the House of Representatives to pass it as well.”
Tester said he expected the public lands bill to pass the House without changes and be signed by the president shortly.