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Congress Has Voted To Massively Expand Public Lands And Create Four National Monuments

The bill would create new public lands and national monuments, designate hundreds of miles of river as wild and scenic, and protect large swaths of land from mining.

Last updated on February 27, 2019, at 6:18 p.m. ET

Posted on February 26, 2019, at 6:52 p.m. ET

Tourists take picture of wildflowers in Death Valley National Park, one of the parks that would be expanded under the legislation.
Jae C. Hong / AP

Tourists take picture of wildflowers in Death Valley National Park, one of the parks that would be expanded under the legislation.

Congress has passed a sweeping public lands conservation package that would protect millions of acres of land and rivers across the country and create four national monuments and more than 1 million acres of new wilderness.

The Natural Resources Management Act, approved in a 363–62 vote Tuesday in the House of Representatives, received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers. It now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.

House Natural Resources Chair Raul M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, called the legislation a "massive win for the present and future of American conservation."

"This bill represents Congress at its best and truly gives the American people something to be excited about," Grijalva said in a statement. "Everyone from inner cities to suburbs to rural communities wins when we work together to preserve the outdoors."

The legislation, which consolidates more than 100 public lands, natural resources, and water bills into one, protects large swaths of land from mining, designates 1.3 million acres of land in California, Utah, Oregon, and New Mexico as wilderness, and protects nearly 620 miles of rivers across several states from damming and other development.

Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California's Mojave Desert.
Jae C. Hong / AP

Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California's Mojave Desert.

The bill, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will save taxpayers $9 million, would also permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired last year. The program uses private offshore oil and gas revenues to pay for conservation of federal lands for outdoor recreation and provide grants for state and local governments to create green space and provide access to natural resources.

"This benefits every congressional district, every county, every state in this country," Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said before the House vote Tuesday.

Since it was established by Congress in 1965, the program has funded more than 40,000 projects nationwide, according to the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, called the fund "one of the country's most effective conservation programs," and applauded lawmakers decision to reauthorize it on a permanent basis.

β€œFor too long, LWCF has been stuck in a cycle of uncertainty that limited its potential," Tercek said in a statement Tuesday. "The overwhelmingly bipartisan votes in the House and Senate to renew LWCF reflect our nation’s longstanding commitment to conservation, ensuring future generations will benefit from LWCF."

The act expands the boundaries of several national parks, including Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California; Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia; and establishes new national monuments in California, Utah, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

The monuments include the St. Francis Dam in Los Angeles County, where hundreds of people died after the structure collapsed in 1928; an area in Utah where a high density of Jurassic-era bones are located; the home of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; and the Mill Springs Battlefield in Nancy, Kentucky, the site of the first decisive Union victory in the Civil War.

Historical reenactors fire a cannon during a demonstration at Kennesaw National Battlefield in Georgia.
John Bazemore / AP

Historical reenactors fire a cannon during a demonstration at Kennesaw National Battlefield in Georgia.

While the bill was championed by environmentalists and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as one of the biggest conservation bills in years, some have taken issue with a provision that authorizes the privatization of hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in Alaska.

The provision provides for the allotment of up to 160 acres to each Alaska native who served during the Vietnam War and missed previous opportunities to stake land claims under Alaska's old homesteading law.

"This is not a perfect bill," Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh wrote in a blog post earlier this month.

Suh said that while the group supports eligible veterans claiming the land because they were serving in the military, the provision could "open the floodgates for 4,000 or more other Alaskans also to acquire public lands."

"At the rate of 160 acres per person, the bill would create new entitlements that could privatize two-thirds of a million acres," she wrote. "That means lands that belong to the American people, that belong to you and me, could be lost β€” parceled off into subdivisions, commercially developed or sold for mining or oil and gas drilling."

Still, Suh said that single provision shouldn't eclipse the major environmental and conservation wins in the legislation.

"By and large, though, it’s a giant step forward in the natural legacy we share today and will entrust to others tomorrow," she wrote.

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