Euphoria: Big Public Lands Bill Passes Senate, But Toxic Provisions Remain

by Rona Fried

In a VERY rare bipartisan moment, especially for our environment, the Senate passed the largest public lands bill in a decade by 92-8!  There’s a lot to love in the bill, but as usual, some toxic provisions are tucked in. 

Natural Resources Management Act protects 2.5 million acres of land, hundreds of miles of rivers and permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for it. 

Until now, the Conservation Fund has been renewed for several years at a time and sometimes allowed to expire. Created in 1965, its money comes from offshore drilling revenue.  While it’s pathetic that fossil fuels pay for conservation, at least the money is used for the public good.

Of the 2.5 million acres of land preserved, half is designated as wilderness, the most stringent protective status after national park – no roads and no extractive activities are allowed. 225 miles of rivers are protected in Massachusetts and Connecticut and 200 miles in Oregon. Mississippi and Kentucky get three new national monuments. 

Part of the bill is a scaled down version of Senator Wyden’s Oregon Wildlands Act, reports the Statesman Journal. It creates the 30,000-acre Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, protecting one of Oregon’s largest remaining old-growth forests, prevents minerals extraction at Chetco River and designates 200 miles of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Also included is the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act , which prohibits mining on 30,000 acres bordering Yellowstone National Park. That’s the accomplishment of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, over 400 businesses that wanted to block two proposed gold mines there. 

“It’s absolutely incredible to see the power of a united community,” Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of Park County Environmental Council, said. “We were able to set aside personal politics, stand shoulder-to-shoulder and work hard to safeguard the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, our public lands, our wildlife, people and jobs that depend on clean water and open lands in our community. It’s just incredible.” 

“It’s one of the biggest bipartisan wins for this country I’ve ever seen in Congress,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, where the bill is expected to pass easily.

Another component of the legislation is The WILD ACT (Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver Act), which promotes wildlife conservation, protects endangered species and helps manage invasive species.  

“Few issues are more bipartisan than the need to protect our communities from invasive species,” said John Barrasso (R-WY), Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “They cause more than $120 billion of economic damage each year.”

As someone who has spent hundreds of hours pulling invasive plants, I’m thrilled to see this acknowledgement. Invasives literally smother ecosystems.

Under the bill, federal agencies will be required to develop programs to control invasive species and prize competitions will be created that prevent wildlife poaching and trafficking, manage invasives, promote conservation, and protect endangered wildlife. It reauthorizes legislation (which was allowed to expire) that protects endangered species abroad until 2023, such as elephants, great apes, turtles and tigers. 

Sponsors of The Wild Act: Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), Tom Carper (D-DE), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), John Boozman (R-AR), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Companion legislation in the House has been introduced by Representatives Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) and Don Young (AK-1). 

I point this out because some of the most anti-wildlife Republicans are co-sponsors. It’s critical that wildlife like elephants and tigers get desperately needed assistance, but our wildlife is also under great threat at home. The GOP is on an endless drive to kill the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and in particular, have their guns pointed at wolves.

Since 2010, Congressional Republicans have launched 164 attacks on the Endangered Species Act, according to Politics of Extinction, by the Center for Biological Diversity.

A Closer Look Under the Hood is Revealing
Turns out, there’s a reason anti-wildlife and anti-public lands Senators voted in favor of this bill. 

Non-profit Wilderness Watch calls out unprecedented provisions quietly tucked in that would change how public lands are managed and not for the better. 

Wildlife Management in National Parks:  never before has hunting been allowed in National Parks, but the bill allows the Secretary of Interior to invite “volunteer” hunters to cull herds s/he believes have grown too large. Former Interior Secretary Zinke already did this on national preserves in Alaska, where state officials salivate at the prospect of a hunting free-for-all against wolves, grizzly bears, and any animal whose diet infringes on hunters. Kill all the wolves and there’s a lot more elk and moose to shoot for fun. Instead of in-tact ecosystems, we get game farms.

“Hunting groups like Safari Club International and NRA have always chafed at the ban on hunting in National Parks, and the public lands bill is their key to finally opening the lock,” says George Nickas, Executive Director of Wilderness Watch.

The Sportsmen’s Provision
pushes through part of the Share Act (Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act), which Republicans have been trying to get through for years. It makes hunting a priority for public land management!  Again, that means eliminating predators like wolves so that game animals flourish.

By the way, only 6% of Americans hunt. 
Yes, this is a 2-faced bill: it protects endangered species like elephants on the one hand, but lifts protection for endangered animals at home. That’s not all, of course. Other provisions include putting a major gas pipeline through Denali National Park and potentially opening hundreds of thousands of acres in Alaska to privitization. 

As Wilderness Watch says, when the bill gets to the House,  it should be scrutinized through hearings and proper oversight. The Senate held no hearings. 

Contact your Representative and tell them not to allow these toxic provisions in the House bill. 

Meanwhile, another bill has been introduced to ban fossil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), another GOP goal for decades.  The Trump Administration is moving quickly to drill there after sneaking it into the 2017 GOP tax-cut law. The new bill would repeal that section of the law.  

“This is a deeply unpopular thing in the United States. People don’t want it. They haven’t asked for it. And they will not accept that the wildest place in our country is on track to be sacrificed at the altar of Big Oil,  said Jared Huffman (D-CA), one of the sponsors.

This fight has been on-going since the late 1980s, when scientists proved there’s a measly 6 months worth of oil there. Not a good reason to permanently scar one of the last true pristine landscapes that hundreds of species of animals depend on. 

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