Senate Passes Landmark Bill to Enlarge Public Lands in Western States

Bill sets aside more than one million acres of new wilderness and conservation areas

Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks are to be enlarged, and stunning river landscapes in California and Utah will be protected, under new legislation that passed the US Senate on Tuesday.

photo of Death Valley
The legislation will protect 500,000 acres in California alone, including 43,000 acres that will be added to Death Valley National Park (pictured) and Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Andrew Kearns.

In all the public lands package sets aside more than a million acres of new wilderness and conservation areas in western states.

The Natural Resources Management Act passed 92-8 in the Republican-controlled Senate, a notable bipartisan effort in an administration marked by conservation rollbacks. Since Donald Trump took office, his administration has shrunk national monuments and put large swaths of land up for oil, gas, and mining leases, including on the doorsteps of national monuments, parks, and wilderness areas. The bill will go to the Democrat-controlled House next, where it’s likely to pass, and then to the president’s desk.

The landmark bill protects nearly 500,000 acres in California alone, including adding 43,000 acres to Death Valley national park and Joshua Tree national park, which was damaged by unsupervised crowds during the recent government shutdown. The bill also designates 375,500 acres of new wilderness in the southern California desert, which is a critical ecosystem for bighorn sheep and desert tortoise and the setting for thousands of years of cultural history, including the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trade route that linked northern New Mexico to Los Angeles.

“Latinos make up nearly 50 percent of the population in the California desert,” said Maite Arce, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation. “Protecting this area is significant to people across many cultures and communities, and it will help strengthen the diverse social fabric of the region.”

Nearly half a million wilderness acres will be added in Utah, a state that hasn’t protected new acreage since the 1964 Wilderness Act.

As for watersheds, some 30,000 acres adjacent to the Yellowstone River in Montana will be protected from mining, and 100,000 acres of the Umpqua watershed in Oregon, one of the most important areas in the Pacific northwest for salmon and steelhead trout, will be conserved. The bill classifies nearly 620 miles of river as “wild and scenic” — prohibiting, for instance, federal support for dam construction — including the Amargosa River in California, the Green River in Utah, and tributaries of the Rogue River in Oregon.

Not least, it renews the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses income from offshore oil and gas leasing to safeguards natural areas. During Trump’s first years in office, the Republican-controlled Congress had declined to renew it.

Some conservationists worry that Trump may use the signing of the bill as a bargaining chip in a tussle over other political priorities, although they note that the Senate has clearly demonstrated widespread support for its passage.

“Those lands that were protected today belong to every single American,” said Land Tawney, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president and CEO. “This vote signifies that we still care about public lands. We are carrying out the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, and that is uniquely American.”

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