Update February 26, 2019: The House passed the legislation by a vote of 363-62, sending it to President Trump's desk.
Last week the U.S. Senate threw out the script Congress has been following lately—the one that says public lands are controversial and bipartisanship is dead—and passed the most significant land-protection legislation in recent memory.
On February 12, senators voted 92-8 to approve the Natural Resources Management Act, a nearly 700-page bundle of bills, many of them driven by local conservation campaigns and some in the works for more than a decade. Among other provisions, the legislation creates vast new protected areas, extends an important program for birds that winter in the tropics, and permanently renews a proven tool for protecting natural areas and promoting outdoor recreation.
The House is on recess this week, but it is expected to pass the legislation soon after it returns, and White House sources told the Washington Post that President Trump will sign it.
No one is 100 percent happy with the compromise legislation. Perhaps the most contentious measure would give 160 acres each to Alaskan Native veterans of the Vietnam War, which could privatize nearly half a million acres of federal land.
Taken as a whole, though, the package looks like a major win for birds and birders. Here are some of the highlights.
A Key Conservation Program Renewed, Forever
The single most significant action in the legislation is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, widely seen as one of the country’s most effective programs for protecting wildlife habitat and creating opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Since 1964, the LWCF has used government revenue from offshore oil and gas development—not from taxpayers—to acquire public lands, make recreational improvements, protect endangered species habitat, and promote stewardship of working lands like forests and grasslands. The program has helped to expand and restore habitat for a variety of vulnerable bird species, including Marbled Murrelet, Northern Spotted Owl, Coastal California Gnatcatcher, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
The LWCF is supposed to receive $900 million annually, but Congress often diverts most of that money to other programs. Conservation groups were hoping the new legislation would guarantee full funding of the LWCF. That didn’t happen, so for now they’ll still have to urge lawmakers to use the money for conservation projects each year.
Even so, advocates see the permanent renewal of the LWCF as a major victory. The program expired in September for the second time in three years. By renewing it permanently, Congress will avoid such lapses in the future. “The Senate’s vote to permanently reauthorize the fund is an important, hard-fought and overdue victory for parks and wildlife habitat across America,” Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president of public lands for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.
New Protections for Public Lands
Along with generally promoting conservation by renewing the LWCF, the legislation also protects specific wild places with important habitat for birds. That includes some 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas, which receive the federal government’s strictest protections, with roads and vehicles prohibited.
New Mexico gets a dozen new wilderness areas totaling more than 270,000 acres within two national monuments: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and RÍo Grande del Norte. “Those are both very large pieces of intact habitat of some of the more imperiled habitat in the southwest,” says Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. The areas include riverside thickets, pristine grasslands, and desert scrublands that support a wide variety of birds, including Scaled Quail, Black-chinned Sparrow, and White-throated Swift.
The southern California desert gains 375,500 acres of new wilderness protection under the legislation, which simultaneously expands Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. The new wilderness areas include habitat for the federally threatened Inyo California Towhee and endangered Yuma Ridgway's Rail, among other species.
In Oregon, the legislation creates the 30,000-acre Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, a rare remnant tract of old-growth fir, cedar, and hemlock that is home to the highest density of Northern Spotted Owls in the Coast Range, according to the conservation group Oregon Wild. And in southern Utah, 14 new wilderness areas will protect some 660,000 acres of remote, rugged terrain, along with establishing an 850-acre Jurassic National Monument.
The legislation also designates about 620 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, creates new national recreation areas, and permanently prevents mining in 370,000 acres adjoining Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks.
A Big Boost for Migratory Birds
The bill package also includes a reauthorization of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which supports partnerships for protecting the 340 bird species that breed in North America and winter in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 2002, the program has invested $66 million—and unlocked nearly four times that amount in non-government matching funds—to protect bird habitat in 36 countries, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If signed, the bill will provide the program with up to $6.5 million a year for the next five years.
“It’s important because it provides dedicated funding that goes directly to where migratory birds will benefit the most by looking at their full life cycle,” says Erik Schneider, a policy analyst with the National Audubon Society. The act’s grant program has played a big part in Audubon’s international conservation work, he says, including protecting South America’s Southern Cone grasslands, Panama Bay in Central America, and the Joulter Cays in the Bahamas, which hosts 10 percent of the Atlantic population of Piping Plovers during winter. “We can only be as successful in our conservation efforts as the weakest link in the chain of their migration, so the program is particularly helpful in protecting key wintering and migratory stopover sites,” he says.
Bipartisanship Proves Possible
At a more basic level, the strong support for the legislation demonstrates that Democrats and Republicans can sometimes still see eye to eye, and that conservation can be a unifying, something-for-everyone issue on Capitol Hill. “The sweeping new conservation bill shows Congress is not completely broken after all,” the Post editorial board opined.
There was unanimous support for the package among the Senate’s Democrats and Independents, and 45 of the chamber’s 53 Republicans voted for it. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, tells the Post that he and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee’s ranking Republican, “are happy to work together to get this across the finish line.”
At a time when the executive branch has shrunk national monuments and is opening up more public lands to fossil-fuel development, this legislative embrace of big, bold conservation measures is heartening, says Hayes of Audubon New Mexico. “I think what’s most encouraging—and it’s shown by the wilderness designations in New Mexico—is the conservation of large landscapes and big pieces of land, which is what’s really needed to effect continental change for these bird species in decline,” he says. “It’s a big deal, and it’s especially a big deal given the current political climate.”