The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed landmark legislation Tuesday to expand recreation access and conserve public lands nationwide. Passage of the Natural Resources Act stood out not just because it tackled a big challenge — the permanent authorization of the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund — but also because of the strength of bipartisan support that propelled the omnibus package beyond the politics of division.
Senators passed the bill 92-8, with Utah’s Republican senators taking opposite positions. Sen. Mitt Romney voted with the majority to pass the bill, while Sen. Mike Lee voted “no” after two of his amendments failed in earlier votes.
“There are some parts that people don’t like,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands policy at the National Wildlife Federation. “But, on the whole, it’s a remarkable win for conservation — especially in a time when our country is so divided.”
The bill was cobbled together from more than 100 pieces of legislation, most of which had been considered by Congress over the past two years. It sets aside 1.3 million acres of wilderness — about half of it in Utah. And it opens federal land to hunting and fishing except in areas where land managers specifically prohibit access.
But the big win was the resolution of a controversy over the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pumps hundreds of millions of dollars of offshore oil and gas revenue each year into a matching fund for lands projects that can range anywhere from improving inner-city parks to safeguarding grizzly bear habitat.
Some lawmakers said the fund had drifted from its original purpose and was being misused, so they let it expire in the fall. Since then, critics say the fund has lost $332 million.
Over a decade between 2006 and 2015, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition reported, about half ofthe money helped cover the cost of federal projects, and state and local agencies plow the remainder into their project priorities, such as fish and wildlife habitat conservation.
More than 200, widely diverse groups declared theirsupport for the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. From the Crowley County Board of Commissioners and the Outdoor Industry Association in Colorado, to Emery County Commissioners and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Utah.
“While this agreement came with some difficult choices, it brings long-term protection to this spectacular landscape,” said SUWA’s executive director, Scott Groene, who praised Emery County officials for their flexibility in crafting the compromise. “We are excited by the passage of this legislation, which protects 663,000 acres of Utah’s iconic San Rafael Swell and Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons in Emery County as designated wilderness.”
Romney lauded “locally-driven” legislation that’s included in the Natural Resources Act. One is the creation of Jurassic National Monument in Emery County and land transfers to accommodate growth in Nephi and Hyde Park.
“This legislation is the culmination of years of collaboration and cooperation between Utah county commissioners and local conservation groups, ranchers, recreationists, and others,” the Utah senators said. “As a result, it includes important provisions that were crafted and driven at the local level instead of by Washington bureaucrats.”
Senate leaders gave Lee the opportunity to make his case for two amendments that were a high priority for him: exempting Utah from the Antiquities Act and limiting the Land and Water Conservation Fund extension to five years. Both efforts failed in Senate votes that took place over the past week.
On Monday, Lee told his colleagues that large national monuments created in Utah deprived rural Utah of economic opportunities. He wanted senators to limit future monuments created by presidents under the Antiquities Act only to those approved by Congress. It’s an exemption that already applies to Alaska and Wyoming.
“What was intended to be an act of cultural preservation, has sadly deteriorated into a greedy, harmful, federal land grab,” Lee said on the Senate floor.
Murkowski said she understood Lee’s frustration and pledged to work with him on the concept another time. But she resisted the amendment because of its potential to undermine support for the Natural Resources Act. Lee’s previous fight to secure the Antiquities exemption for Utah caused the lands-bill compromise to die last December.
“Given the vehicle that we have in front of us, I will move to table and would ask that colleagues join me,” she said Monday, shortly before the 60-33 vote that killed Lee’s amendment.
A House version of the bill is expected to come up soon. The former and current House Resources Committee chairmen - Utah Republican Rob Bishop and Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, respectively - have already crafted a LWCF compromise. Both have complained previously about the Senate’s failure to act and say they are ready now to do their part in the House.
Key features of the Natural Resources Act:
- Creates 4 new national monuments, including the Jurassic National Monument in southern Utah at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
- Designates 650 miles of Wild and Scenic River in Utah, Oregon, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
- Includes three mineral withdrawals - one in Washington at Methow Valley and two in Montana at Emigrant Gulch and Crevice.
- Allows the federal government to acquire 2,337 acres of non-federal land, while paving the way for 17,780 acres of federal land to be acquired by non-federal owners.
- Does not provide guaranteed funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund that many supporters wanted.