State gains new protections through public land act

By:  Tim Johnson
Source: Cascadia Weekly

This is how Washington is supposed to work—both of them.

A national, bipartisan environmental package was signed into law last month that expands protections for public lands and supports outdoor projects across the state. The John Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, co-led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, includes specific wins for public lands in this Washington—including the North Cascades and Olympics.

Importantly, the act permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has supported hundreds of natural resources projects around the state The act protects the iconic Methow Valley from destructive mining, improves irrigation and salmon recovery in the Yakima River Basin, and creates designated heritage areas.

For the Methow Valley in particular, the bill includes protections for the Methow headwaters and watershed by removing 340,000 acres of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest from potential mining development. In eastern Washington, the bill establishes more water storage in the Yakima Valley, water to restore salmon runs and safeguard farmers from drought.

The legislation adds 1.3 million acres in wilderness areas, and adds 367 miles of wild rivers—many in the Pacific Northwest—to the National Scenic Rivers System.

The Mountains to Sound Greenway, 1.5 million acres along the I-90 corridor between Ellensburg and Seattle, is now a National Heritage Area. The new Nordic Museum in Seattle is now the National Nordic Museum.

The act’s accompanying legislation would create a Maritime Washington National Heritage Area that includes lighthouses, historic vessels, parks, and other landmarks located along the shorelines of 13 counties—Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, San Juan, Island, King, Pierce, Thurston, Mason, Kitsap, Jefferson, Clallam, and Grays Harbor—to preserve and promote the state’s maritime history and culture for future generations.

“There’s nothing better than just being outdoors,” Cantwell said. “It’s such an important part of our Northwest culture.”

In total, the Natural Resources Management Act includes more than 110 individual bills sponsored by 50 senators from both sides of the aisle, and establishes more than 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas, protections for 367 miles of wild and scenic rivers, and provides funds for 2,600 miles of new national trails.

As its centerpiece the new law re-establishes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, money from federal oil leases that has aided hundreds of projects in urban Washington, coastal Washington and the high Cascades.

Years in the making, Cantwell’s bipartisan package passed the Senate by an overwhelming 92 to 8 vote on Feb. 12, 2019, and was approved without amendment by the House of Representatives on a vote of 363 to 62 on Feb. 26, 2019. The powerfully supported bill was signed into law by the president last month.

“This legislation gives the tools and resources to local communities to manage this, to give more access to the American people, to do the things that will help us grow jobs and help us recreate for the future and preserve against a very challenging and threatening climate,“ Cantwell said.

“The biggest public lands bill in a decade, maybe even a generation, amid divided government is a case study for how lawmaking is supposed to work,” legislative analyst James Hohmann wrote for the Washington Post. “There were compromises that delivered a little something for everyone across the ideological spectrum, even if no one really got everything they wanted. Unlike so much legislation that gets drafted at the last minute and passed in the middle of the night, this circulated and percolated for years. There were hearings, markups and good-faith negotiations. When a handful of holdouts tried to insert poison pills during the amendment process to torpedo the bill, Republicans and Democrats stuck together. It was old-school and harked back to a time when Congress worked.”

“Every member of Washington’s congressional delegation had a hand in its successful passage,” Gov. Jay Inslee said, “but we are especially thankful to Sen. Cantwell for her key leadership over several years to get this done.”

Often described as one of the country’s most important conservation programs, the LWCF is a key component of Washington state’s booming outdoor recreation economy, which generates more than $26 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 200,000 Washington jobs. Since its creation in 1965, the fund has invested over $675 million into more than 600 projects across the state, including popular recreation sites like Olympic National Park, Lake Chelan State Park, and Riverside State Park. Thousands of Washington residents have benefitted from access to trails and outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as clean air and water preservation that would not have been possible without the funding provided by the LWCF.

The achievement was possible because two senators on opposite sides of the aisle were committed to working together, for long hours, to build support for it.

Support was built, in Murkowski’s words, because the legislation offered an opportunity to “clear the deck of issues we’ve been working to resolve for years… Sen. Cantwell and I worked together for years.”

Cantwell and Murkowski have fought pitched battles with each other over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and a giant proposed mine beside two premier Bristol Bay salmon streams. On other issues, they cooperate—Murkowski as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Cantwell as its ranking Democrat.

The legislation was named for John Dingell, the longest serving U.S. House member in history, who died earlier this year. Dingell was an outspoken conservationist during his 59-year tenure, and committed to the hard, cooperative work required to pass major legislation.

Murkowski and Cantwell showed it  is still possible to get things done in Washington, D.C. They were honest with one another, they were mature and deliberate in their actions, and they were committed to the work.