New bill leaves lands protected, lawmaking neglected

A bipartisan public lands bill punts on overhauling environmental policies.


A fresh wilderness designation in southern New Mexico. A new national monument in Los Angeles. Hundreds of miles of river protected in Oregon. A ban on new mining projects on Yellowstone National Park’s doorstep. These were a few of the crowd-pleasers the Senate tossed, with Oprah-esque glee, into a bipartisan public-lands bill that passed on Feb. 12.

The bill’s passage set off a barrage of praise from many corners of the outdoor community, as groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, The Wilderness Society and the Outdoor Industry Association applauded the legislation. The Natural Resources Management Act, which passed 92-8 in the Senate — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was the only Western senator to vote no — is expected to pass the House of Representatives by the end of February.

Given the bipartisan brinksmanship of the current Congress, the passage of such a far-reaching public lands bill seemed like an amazing feat of détente. But underlying the expanded land protections is an issue Congress refused to take up: updating public-lands laws for the 21st century.

The Organ Mountains of New Mexico are among the more than 1.3 million acres designated as wilderness in the Senate-passed Natural Resources Management Act.
Catherine Lucas/Stockimo/Alamy Stock Photo

The Natural Resources Management Act is the largest public-lands protection bill since 2009, when Congress passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which protected more than 2 million acres of wilderness and designated more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers. The current bill adds more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness, protects 367 miles of rivers and creates four new national monuments. All this is tied together by the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund, which reinvests royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling into a wide range of conservation and outdoor-friendly projects, is a favorite of politicians on both sides of the aisle, who can show off the baseball fields and hiking trails that the fund pays for when they’re out campaigning.

The bill was widely seen as a compromise that rejected more politically fraught amendments, including Sen. Lee’s push to give Utah veto power over the designation of national monuments in the state. However, a few provisions drew criticism: Alaskan environmentalists have decried a program that expands offerings of public lands in the state to Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans. And Wilderness Watch, a nonprofit focused on preserving designated wilderness areas, is opposing several provisions in the bill, including one that permits hang gliding in the Organ Mountains Wilderness of New Mexico.

Cheers and jeers aside, the bipartisan legislation papers over the continued inability of Congress to actually set laws governing how public land is managed. Rather than address the overarching issues facing public-lands management, such as wildfires, greenhouse gas emissions and protecting wildlife corridors for endangered species, the new lands bill is “classic pork-barrel politics, where everybody is getting a little something,” said Chris Klyza, a professor of political science and environmental studies at Middlebury College.

Pushing porky projects while neglecting environmental policymaking is a decades-old tradition in Congress, explains Adam Sowards, an environmental historian and University of Idaho professor and the author of a regular “Reckoning with History” column for High Country News. Bedrock environmental laws that drive public-land policy, such as the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act, were all signed during or before 1976. With partisan divides on environmental policies deepening since the 1970s, “we’ve just been patchworking our way ever since,” said Sowards. 

Without Congress driving public-land management, policy is left to continuous wrangling between presidential administrations, with federal courts acting as the referees. One recent example of this dynamic involves regulations concerning the flaring of methane, a climate-warming gas produced during fossil fuel drilling. Under the Obama administration, the Interior Department stipulated that oil and gas drillers operating on public lands capture rather than burn the methane generated during extraction. Montana, Wyoming and industry lobby groups challenged the rule, but before the dust settled in the courts, Donald Trump was elected and his administration walked it back. Now, that rollback is being challenged in court by California, New Mexico and environmental groups. Absent throughout this back-and-forth were the nation’s legislators, who could have passed laws providing clarity on how greenhouse gas emissions from public lands should be regulated.

Rather than take up divisive issues in this bill, like regulating climate warming emissions, the Senate opted to pick and choose local projects and priorities — leaving the word “climate” out of its nearly 700 pages. Despite the recent emergence of climate-centered policy proposals, like the Green New Deal, this bill and the last three decades of congressional inactivity provide little evidence that legislators will overhaul the nation’s environmental regulations anytime soon, said Klyza. That’s because, despite this kumbaya moment of bipartisan dealmaking, “the gap between parties on the environment is as great as it’s ever been.”

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected]  or submit a letter to the editor.

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