Senate Passes a Sweeping Land Conservation Bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping public lands conservation bill, designating more than one million acres of wilderness for environmental protection and permanently reauthorizing a federal program to pay for conservation measures.

The Senate voted 92 to 8 in favor of the bill, offering a rare moment of bipartisanship in a divided chamber and a rare victory for environmentalists at a time when the Trump administration is working aggressively to strip away protections on public lands and open them to mining and drilling.

“It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development, and conservation,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the majority leader.

Western lawmakers of both parties have been working for four years on the bill, which will next be taken up by the House of Representatives, where it also enjoys bipartisan support.

Among the most consequential provisions is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program established in 1964 that uses fees and royalties paid by oil and gas companies drilling in federal waters to pay for onshore conservation programs.

Although the program has long enjoyed bipartisan support, Congress typically renews it for only a few years at a time, and it expired on Sept. 30 and has not been renewed. The new public lands package would authorize the program permanently, ending its long cycle of nearing or passing expiration and awaiting Congressional renewal.

 

“Today’s vote is a big step toward ending the cycle of uncertainty that has plagued America’s best conservation program,” said Kameran Onley, director of United States Government Relations at the Nature Conservancy. “At no cost to the taxpayer, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped expand national parks, preserve pristine landscapes, and create trails and athletic fields across the country.”

The bill designates 1.3 million acres in Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and California as “wilderness,” the most stringent level of federal land protection. It prohibits any development and the use of most motorized vehicles. And the bill creates less-stringent but permanent protections of land in Montana and Washington state.

With the passage, the core group of lawmakers responsible for the negotiations was jubilant. Staff members fist-bumped in the hallway as the lawmakers — all from Western states except for Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and the new ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — celebrated the bill’s passage.

“It took public lands to bring divided government together,” said Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National Journal. @CoralMDavenport Facebook

per https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/climate/senate-conservation-bill.html