Massive public lands bill expected to receive easy approval in the House

By:  Julianna Rennie
Source: McClatchy DC

More than 1.3 million acres of new wilderness would be designated. Four national monuments would be created. Thousands of acres of land would be protected from future mining development. And firefighting technology would be upgraded using GPS and drones. 

All this is a part of a massive public lands package the House is poised to pass next week and send to President Donald Trump. 

The package co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that uses revenue from offshore oil and natural gas drilling to support conservation projects in every state. 

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the plan 92-8 last week. So far, no serious opposition has emerged in the House, which is expected to take a final vote next week. 

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, and top committee Republican Rep. Rob Bishop have publicly agreed to support the legislation.

Over the past two years, Trump has opened up public lands to drilling and mining, rolled back regulations to help developers and proposed reducing the size of the protected areas of several national monuments. 

At the heart of the public lands package is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The 50-year-old fund was created by former Washington state Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. In Washington state, the fund has supported more than 600 projects and contributed $675 million to the economy. 

Last month, Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, reintroduced the bill to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund had expired in September for the second time in three years. 

Cantwell was enthusiastic to include Burr’s bill in the public lands package. “I feel like we’re continuing the legacy of what my state is interested in,” she said. 

Many provisions in the package have been decades in the making. One Washington state bill authorizes a new water resource management plan in the Yakima River Basin. 

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington, said he was been working on legislation for the Yakima River since he was elected to Congress in 2015. 

“We have a very diverse group of stakeholders that have been engaged in this issue for 10 years — we’ve got farmers, we’ve got environmentalists, we’ve got local and state government, a lot of tribes,” Newhouse said. 

Other measures would prohibit mining in the Methow Valley, designate the Mountains to Sounds Greenway a national heritage site, and improve early warning volcano monitoring systems. 

The public lands package nearly passed in December, but was blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah. Lee wanted his state to be exempt from the Antiquities Act, which enables presidents to create national monuments without approval from Congress or local governments. His amendment to the package that would have accomplished this failed 60-33.