Why the New U.S. Public Lands Bill Is Such a Big Deal

Turret Arch stands out against a blue sky at Arches National Park in Utah. (Photo: Ian D. Keating/Flickr)

Ready for a little good news about the environment? The U.S. Congress passed a landmark public lands bill that could shape the country's wilderness conservation for decades to come.

Called the Natural Resources Management Act (NRMA), the bill passed the Senate on Feb. 12 by a vote of 92-8 and the House on Feb. 26 by a vote of 363-62, with massive bipartisan support. Now, the bill is in the hands of President Trump, who has 10 days to decide whether or not to sign it into law.

“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tells The New York Times.

The 662-page bill contains nearly 100 pieces of legislation, touching on everything from national park expansions to river conservation. Below are just a few highlights that make this bill such a potentially big win for conservation in the U.S.

Protects 1.3 million acres of wilderness

Under the new land use bill, Joshua Tree National Park will increse by 4,518 acres. (Photo: tofoli.douglas/Flickr)

Large swaths of land in Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and California will officially be designated as wilderness under the NRMA, effectively giving more than 1.3 million acres the highest protections offered by the federal government. Some 515,700 acres of that total would account for expansions to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. It's worth noting the act also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.

Under a wilderness designation, Americans have the right to camp, hike, ride horses, hunt and fish (unless otherwise noted), among other activities. Roads and motorized vehicles are prohibited, except to protect human health and safety.

According to The Wilderness Society, although the U.S. has granted protections to nearly 110 million acres of federal wildlands since 1964, this is only a drop in the bucket in the overall management of U.S. natural resources.

"It turns out that 109 million acres is less than five percent of the total U.S. land base, and when you factor out Alaskan wilderness, it's just two percent the lower 48 states," the group explains on its website.

Permanently reauthorizes the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Milky Way rises over Fiftymile Mountain inside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Escalante, Utah. (Photo: Ryan Hallock [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Created by Congress in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to support wilderness conservation. As energy companies pay the U.S. for the right to drill on the Outer Continental Shelf, the LWCF receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year for recreational activities, wildlife protections and other conservation projects.

The fund previously had been renewed every few years, but Congress allowed it to lapse in September 2018. As a result, the country lost more than $330 million in royalties that could have gone to land management. Thanks to the new act, however, the LWCF will become permanent, buffering it from changing tides in Congress.

The LWCF is widely seen as a worthy investment, according to the National Audubon Society, which notes the fund "returns $4 in economic value for every one dollar it invests in federal land acquisition."

Boosts volcano warning and monitoring systems

Mount Rainier as viewed from Pier 66 in Seattle. (Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr)

Should the NRMA become law, the U.S. will establish its first national early-warning and monitoring system for the country's most dangerous volcanoes. According to a recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. is home to 18 "high threat" volcanoes, including Hawaii's Kilauea as well as Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington in the top three.

Funding will also be allocated to upgrade and standardize monitoring systems nationwide, and for the establishment of a 24-hour volcano watch office.

“It’s going to allow us to address needs for more and better instrumentation on high-threat volcanoes,” John Ewert, a volcanologist with the USGS’s Cascade Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, tells The Columbian newspaper. “It allows us really to improve and formalize our collaboration with other federal and state local and academic partners on how we monitor and evaluate hazards, and then how we respond to volcanoes when they reawaken."

Saves 620 miles of rivers in seven states from damming and development

The Rogue, one of the longest rivers in Oregon, tumbles and flows more than 200 miles, entering the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)

In an effort to better safeguard the nation's river systems, the NRMA includes a bill that would protect more than 620 miles of waterways across seven states. It's the largest addition in nearly a decade to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects more than 12,000 miles of U.S. rivers.

According to the nonprofit American Rivers, highlights of the bill include 256 miles of new designations for tributaries of the Rogue, Molalla and Elk rivers in Oregon, and 110 miles of rivers in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

The bill would also protect nearly 100,000 acres of critical steelhead trout habitat in Oregon, and initiate measures to defend rivers like Montana's Yellowstone and Washington's Methow from potential industrial dangers like mining.

Protects habitats for more than 380 bird species

Habitat supporting more than 380 species of birds will be protected through 2022 under the new land use bill. (Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr)

In addition to critical bird habitats protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the NRMA also includes a reauthorization of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. This program protects more than 4.5 million acres of habitat for hundreds of migratory bird species.

“Our goal is to continue to sustain healthy populations of migratory birds that are not only aesthetically beautiful, but also critical to our farmers through consuming billions of harmful insects and rodent pests, pollinating crops and dispersing seeds," Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who co-sponsored this legislation, said in a 2017 statement about an earlier version of the bill.

Funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act under the NRMA will continue through 2022.

Designates five new national monuments

The Mill Springs Battlefield in Kentucky stretches over 600 acres. (Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr)

The NRMA grants national monument status to five sites, including: the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi, honoring the home of the slain civil rights leader; the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky, honoring a Civil War battlefield and former Union hospital and recruitment center; the Saint Francis Dam site in California, where 431 people were killed after a dam collapse in 1928; and the Jurassic National Monument, an 851-acre region in central Utah designed to conserve the "paleontological, scientific, educational and recreational resources of the area."

Along with these new national monuments, the NRMA also enshrines three sites in Washington, West Virginia and Maryland as National Heritage Areas, "where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape," according to the U.S. National Park Service.