In Bipartisan Move, Congress Passes the Largest Conservation Bill in a Decade

  • October 11, 2019
  • by Charles Babington

How America’s lands became common ground

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by Don Belt

Winter 2017

On March 12, President Donald Trump signed into law the largest land conservation legislation in a decade.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Finally poised for congressional votes in late 2018 after intense negotiations, the legislation—which affects large swaths of the American West and touches nearly every state—died in the budget stalemate that closed much of the federal government for more than a month.

Perseverance, however, paid off. Local advocates and conservationists in communities large and small, who had worked for years on the various proposals ultimately included in the bill, didn’t give up. More importantly, the legislation’s champions in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives—on both sides of the aisle—also continued to press ahead.

When a new Congress convened in January 2019, the legislation was expedited to the top of the agenda. And in a Capitol typically riven by partisanship, the votes marked a rare moment of national agreement. The Senate passed the legislation 92-8 on Feb. 12; days later the House approved it, 363-62. The president’s signature came soon after.

The massive omnibus bill—officially the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act—runs 662 pages and includes more than 120 proposals, some of which have languished for years. Named for the longtime conservationist lawmaker from Michigan who passed away shortly before Senate approval, it permanently protects nearly 2.5 million acres of land and 676 miles of river, and creates three national parks. It also permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for parks, recreation areas, and wildlife preserves with fees from oil and gas companies for offshore drilling rights. (The fund is generally popular with leaders in both parties, but its renewal had been mired in partisan infighting.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hailed the final legislation’s scope, saying it “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.”

Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, called it “one of the biggest bipartisan wins for this country I’ve ever seen in Congress.”

And The Washington Post declared in an editorial that “the strikingly bipartisan package” shows that “Congress is not broken.”

But the celebration of bipartisanship belies the legislation’s long and sometimes shaky trek. A look back at the dynamics surrounding the bill shows that success came only after conservation advocates and other organizations worked for years to build coalitions among disparate groups—and earn support in Washington from lawmakers of both parties.

Little Grand Canyon in Utah’s expansive—and distinctive—Emery County stretches as far as the eye can see. 

Most years, legislation this broad seemed impossible, as debates over how to manage federal lands roiled the nation, and especially the American West. The differences typically found the interests of ranchers, naturalists, mining companies, outdoor enthusiasts, and Native Americans pitted against one another. Congress hadn’t passed a lands bill this expansive in a decade.

A case in point is Emery County, a sprawling, beautifully rocky, and sparsely populated area in east-central Utah. The federal government owns much of the region’s land, and local groups across the ideological spectrum sought a voice in how it would be used. But efforts to reach agreement among the various groups on land-management proposals faltered for years.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the executive branch in Washington increasingly stepped into these political voids, with a succession of presidents using the U.S. Antiquities Act to limit the use of large tracts of federal land, including some in Utah, by designating them national monuments. Local governments and activists got the message: You either become part of the solution, or events pass you by. “When you live in and around lands owned by the federal government,” former Emery County commissioner Randy Johnson says, “changes come whether you want them or not.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands team was among the organizations that stepped up to help shape these inevitable changes. Pew has worked for years to protect biodiversity by identifying and preserving important tracts of land and rivers throughout the American West.

From the start, Pew’s staffers took a pragmatic, collaborative approach, recognizing that no one group could get everything it wanted and that uncompromising demands would kill any far-reaching effort.

It was about getting “something done, not a ‘posture’ bill,” says Ray Peterson, Emery County’s public lands administrator, who called Pew’s help “invaluable” in helping draft legislation and navigate Congress’ political minefields.

The omnibus Dingell law includes six pieces of legislation affecting California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah that had been high priorities for Pew. The provisions will protect 1.39 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of land conservation the government can bestow. With other designations, the law protects another 517,000 acres of land and 452 miles of river in areas where Pew was working.

Numerous lawmakers were crucial to the Dingell bill’s ultimate success. Among them were two Utah Republicans: Senator Orrin Hatch, a 42-year veteran of the Senate who retired when the 2018 session ended, and Representative John Curtis, who entered the House in early 2017 and represents Emery County.

Pew’s team worked closely with Rep. Curtis and his staff on a much-debated proposal called the Emery County Public Lands Management Act. Because of the county’s vast size and natural splendor, the Emery measure was seen as a conservation priority, and essential to drawing support from senior lawmakers such as Sen. Hatch for the overall omnibus bill.

The senator had long been wary of land-management bills. Some of his Utah constituents resented dictates from Washington, and he was cautious about legislation that seemed unlikely to pass. But Senate insiders say Sen. Hatch yearned for a conservation legacy before retiring, and advocates hailed his eventual strong support of the omnibus bill.

Rep. Curtis said that Pew staffers “played a pivotal role in bridging the two sides because of their strong credibility with the environmentalists.” He said Pew and other key groups committed themselves early to a collaborative, give-and-take process that was the legislation’s only hope.

The Dingell bill—which was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the influential chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee—could not have existed without the efforts of countless groups and individuals nationwide who worked for years on local proposals that ultimately would make up the legislation. Utah is a good example of the start-and-stop, contentious debates that have often divided communities over the question of how to protect, but still enjoy, federal lands.

Since the 1970s, various Utah factions had made stabs at some type of reconciliation on land use. The early 1990s seemed briefly promising, as groups cobbled together a statewide land-management proposal that would need Congress’ blessing.

But in the end, it collapsed. Conservation groups said it didn’t provide enough wilderness protection. Mining firms didn’t see the regulatory certainty they wanted.

“It just nationalized the polarization in Utah,” says Johnson, the former Emery County commissioner. The bill’s failure set back the effort for years, he says, with many stakeholder groups returning bruised to their corners and demanding more concessions than before. But eventually, Johnson says, both sides realized they couldn’t prevail forever by doing nothing.

In 2009, as part of Congress’ last omnibus lands package, hard-fought land use measures were enacted for Utah’s Washington County, which drew impressive support from various stakeholders. Emery County leaders saw it as an encouraging example and began a long, painstaking series of public hearings that allowed all interests to air their concerns and gather information.

“I started every meeting by saying, ‘Doing nothing is an option. But it’s probably not the best option,’” Peterson says. “That got people’s attention.”

The Kingston Range in California is home to a diverse population of plants and animals, including white fir trees and barrel cacti,  desert bighorn sheep, yellow-billed cuckoos, and the banded Gila monster—as well as to endless opportunities for backcountry adventure. 

Meanwhile, another Utah county—San Juan—was suffering a brand of infighting and stalemate that Emery hoped to avoid. Feuding factions couldn’t settle on a plan to protect the spectacularly scenic area known as Bears Ears.

Tired of the impasse, President Barack Obama in late 2016 invoked the Antiquities Act to declare 1.3 million acres of Bears Ears a national monument, restricting the land’s use. (A year later, President Trump moved to reduce the monument’s size by 85 percent, as well as another in the state—the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—by nearly half. These issues are now tied up in lawsuits.)

Meanwhile in Congress, key lawmakers were starting to assemble dozens of local conservation proposals, from many states, into an omnibus bill. As Rep. Curtis assumed office in early 2017, the fight over Bears Ears was still stirring passions in Utah. Most Utahans, he said, wanted legislative solutions to land use issues, which they could participate in, not mandated pronouncements from Washington. Agreeing to sponsor the Emery County Public Land Management Act in the House, he worked with Democrats, federal officials, Pew staffers, and others to negotiate changes that a wide group of stakeholders could accept, building on what he called “the trust that had been worked on for decades in Emery County.”

By the summer of 2018, a big conservation bill seemed possible before Congress adjourned at the year’s end. Pew and other groups worked with congressional staffers for months. Finally, on Dec. 18, key House and Senate leaders agreed on the package. With the government set to shut down at midnight on Dec. 21 because of a partisan impasse over the federal budget, the goal was to quickly attach the omnibus land use measure to a must-pass spending bill.

But two days before that deadline, Sen. McConnell said he’d allow only a “clean” spending bill, with no attachments. Frantic efforts to pass the conservation bill by itself, by removing “holds” from a few opposing senators, fell short. The legislative clock ran out on the 115th Congress.

Ordinarily, legislative proposals must start afresh when a new Congress convenes. But Sen. Murkowski secured a promise from Sen. McConnell to revive and expedite the omnibus bill when the new Congress began in early 2019. By February, the Dingell bill was on its way to enactment.

The new law included many compromises, such as allowing reasonable, long-established practices to continue in many newly protected areas. In Emery County, for instance, climbers, hunters, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts can still access many of the places they used before. And coal-fired energy plants, important to Emery County’s economy, will continue to operate.

“All along we said we will not eliminate one resource use to benefit another,” Peterson says. This sometimes required creative negotiations, such as drawing wilderness boundaries to narrowly exclude existing roads and trails important to key groups. These agreements proved crucial in bringing disparate groups to the bargaining table and keeping them there.

And it resulted in a law with significant protections: In Utah, it preserves more than 661,000 acres of the San Rafael Swell in Emery County as wilderness; establishes a 216,995-acre national recreation area in the San Rafael Swell (protecting the area from new mining and road construction); and designates 63 miles of the Green River as wild and scenic. It also establishes a new Jurassic National Monument on a site with numerous dinosaur fossils.

Water rushes into Whiskey Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River in Douglas County, Oregon. Nearly 312 miles of the state’s waterways, as well as almost 100,000 acres surrounding them, will be safeguarded by the new legislation, a national commitment to keeping natural landscapes and rivers wild and scenic.

In California, the law protects more than 375,000 acres as wilderness; adds more than 43,500 acres to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks; designates 77 miles of wild and scenic rivers; establishes the 18,840-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area; and establishes several off-highway-vehicle areas totaling about 200,000 acres.

In New Mexico, it permanently protects more than 21,000 acres in two new wilderness areas—Cerro del Yuta and Rio San Antonio—within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, northwest of Taos. It also safeguards more than 240,000 acres of wilderness within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico. And it allows for a buffer zone to aid border security in the Portillo Mountains area.

In Oregon, the law protects nearly 100,000 acres in Douglas County as a special management area, which includes some of the Pacific Northwest’s best wild steelhead spawning areas. It creates the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness on roughly 30,600 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land; permanently protects nearly 312 miles of rivers; and prevents future mining in the Chetco River, a key site for salmon and steelhead.

Any one of those proposals by itself would have been difficult to accomplish, because it’s hard to get floor votes in Congress on individual land protection bills. But bundling so many proposed protected areas into the omnibus Dingell legislation helped build support in Congress and make it a bipartisan priority.

That only came, of course, with strong advocates from both parties—like Republican Rep. Curtis and Sens. Hatch and Murkowski and Democrats including Senators Maria Cantwell (WA), Martin Heinrich (NM), and Ron Wyden (OR)—and after long hours of public and private meetings with every group whose interests might be touched by the legislation.

“You have to be willing to really listen to diverse interests and perspectives, to hear their concerns, and find creative ways to meet their needs without pushing other people away from the table in the process,” says John Seebach, a project director for Pew’s work to conserve U.S. public lands and rivers. “It’s not easy, there are no shortcuts, and you can’t give up. You just have to keep plugging away at it and resolve every new issue that comes up until you finally get it done.”

Top: Sunrise over the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico. Credit: iStockphoto