WASHINGTON — A wide-ranging bill that revives a popular conservation program, adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates five new national monuments has won congressional approval.
The measure is the largest public lands bill approved by Congress in more than a decade. The House passed the bill Tuesday, 363-62, two weeks after it gained Senate approval, sending the measure to the White House for the president's signature.
The bill would permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country. The program expired last fall after Congress could not agree on language to extend it. Both of Colorado's senators -- Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet -- supported its renewal.
The legislation combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic and create nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.
Among Colorado provisions in the measure are language calling for a study of designating the site of the Amache World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans as a national historic park, another study of adding the route of explorer Zebulon Pike (for whom Pikes Peak is named) to the national scenic trails system, the addition of 280 acres to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Teller County, and the addition of land to Arapaho National Forest.
“From fishing and kayaking, to skiing and hiking, public lands provide valuable recreation opportunities for all Americans. I am glad to see this vitally important legislation get passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support," said U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who voted to pass the measure.
"This bill will help to ensure responsible management and preservation of public lands for decades to come," he said. "I am especially pleased that the package contained several bills I have championed over the past few years, including the Fowler and Boskoff Peaks Designation Act, which will honor the lives of the late avid mountaineers, Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, and the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which makes permanent a program to provide free entry to federally managed lands to fourth grade students.”
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based conservation advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, hailed the measure's passage.
“Such overwhelming support in the House and Senate once again demonstrates that public lands conservation transcends partisan politics," Rokala said. "This legislation establishes new wilderness areas, mineral withdrawals, National Park Service units, and national monuments, a welcome contrast to the energy-first and anti-conservation policies that have flooded out of the Interior Department over the last two years.
She added: "Permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund will provide certainty for projects that protect and increase access to our national parks and public lands. It’s imperative that President Trump sign the legislation, then fully fund LWCF in his upcoming budget proposal.”
The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife estimates the LWCF helped pay for $147 million in state projects and another $120 million for federal projects. The federal part of the Colorado funding was only $61 million. However, the federal funds acted as seed money to help the state secure additional financing from other public and private sources.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the bill represents Congress at its best and "truly gives the American people something to be excited about."
Grijalva called the bill as "a massive win" for conservation across the United States.
"Everyone from inner cities to suburbs to rural communities wins when we work together to preserve the outdoors," he said.
Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the committee's top Republican, also hailed the bill and said it will expand access to public lands, offering "wins for America's sportsmen, hunters and fishermen."
The bill establishes national monuments "the right way," through congressional action rather than executive order, Bishop said, and "communicates a profound respect for local decision-making."
The hodgepodge bill offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.
Even so, it was derailed last year after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected, saying he wanted to exempt his state from a law that allows the president to designate federal lands as a national monument protected from development.
Lee's objection during a heated Senate debate in December forced lawmakers to start over in the new Congress, culminating in Tuesday's House vote.
Environmental groups and lawmakers from both parties said they were especially proud the bill reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has supported more than 42,000 state and local projects throughout the U.S. since its creation in 1964. The program, one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created, uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and recreation projects.
"Public lands bring Americans together, and that's why Republicans and Democrats in the House voted overwhelmingly today for a bill that ensures the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be around for our kids and grandkids," said Diane Regas, president and CEO of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. "Today's historic vote, following a 92-8 vote in the Senate, means that more people can have access to hiking trails, city parks and wild landscapes."
"In an era when bipartisanship remains elusive, conservation is a rare issue that still brings Congress together," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. The bipartisan public lands package "represents a historic victory for our wildlife heritage and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe," he said.
The bill creates three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service and two others overseen by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, respectively. The new monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi; the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky; the former Saint Francis Dam site in Southern California; and the Jurassic National Monument in Utah.