Public Lands Package passes Congress, signed by Trump
Washington, D.C. – On March 12, President Donald Trump signed a public lands package including more than 100 pieces of legislation related to public lands and natural resources across the West.
The package, dubbed the Natural Resources Management Act, passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support, but Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council (PLC), says, “This is a recognition of how difficult it is to get public lands or resource bills passed in Congress today.”
“This is a bunch of small, local bills that don’t have enough horsepower or exposure to get through Congress,” Lane continues. “They are all piled together until there isn’t an elected member in the building who doesn’t have something they support in the bill. Congress has grouped some many bills together that everyone gets something they want.”
As a result, the act includes a number of individual, highly technical issues together.
“The last public lands package passed before 2014, so we’ve had a backlog of public lands and resource bills that have been building since then,” Lane comments.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
Among the potentially concerning pieces of the Natural Resources Management Act is a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
“LWCF is a tool that can be used to put conservation on the ground,” explains Lane, “but it’s often used for federal land acquisition.”
Since the program was implemented in 1965, $18 billion has been spent, 65 percent of which has gone to land acquisition and only 25 percent have gone to state-side grants.
“This deal permanently reauthorizes LWCF, which we’re opposed to because it takes away Congress’ voice. In the permanent reauthorization, spending floors are put in place,” Lane says. “Forty percent of the funds must be spent on state-side grants, which will be an increase.”
He continues, “It also says a minimum of 40 percent must be spent on federal land acquisition. Effectively, it brings the rate down, but that’s not enough change or progress to have warranted permanent reauthorization.”
Each year, the appropriate funds must be allocated by Congress, which provides some control. Dollars to support LWCF come from offshore oil and gas revenue earmarked for conservation purposes.
“There is still going to be a fight every year over appropriations,” Lane says. “This year, the president’s budget zeroed the program out.”
Moving into the future, Lane notes that PLC and other organizations will focus on reducing the percentage spent on federal acquisition as close to the 40 percent spending floor as possible.
Land management bills
The public lands package also included a large number of local land bills that designated wilderness areas, make wilderness study areas (WSAs) into full wilderness or released WSAs.
“These are mostly brokered compromises at the local level,” explains Lane. “We never like to have more wilderness, but we also want to be respectful of decisions made at the local level.”
However, the bottom line in the Natural Resources Management Act was the formation of several million acres of new wilderness in exchanges for a smaller number of WSA releases.
In addition to land designation changes, Lane says, “There were also some critical wilderness boundary adjustments in places like Owyhee County, Idaho.”
He continues, “We’ve been working a long time in that area, and we were pleased to see those changes.”
Additionally, long-held disputes on the Texas-Oklahoma border where Bureau of Land Management boundaries conflicts were settled.
Many Wyomingites are familiar with the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which was sponsored by Congressman Cynthia Lummis during her tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“In the package, the Open Book on EAJA also passed,” Lane says. “We’ve been fighting for over 10 years on this act.”
“EAJA mandates that federal agencies compile and maintain a publicly accessible database on payouts to environmental groups through Equal Access to Justice,” he explains. “This is a half-step in the right direction, and we’re happy to see movement.”
With so many pieces involved, Lane notes there is a mixed reaction to each piece of the bills.
“These are the broad strokes of the bill, but there’s a lot included,” he says. “At the end of the day, this package is a mixed bag.”
Lane comments. “Mostly, it is indicative of just how difficult it is to get attention focused on rural public lands issues in a Congress that’s predominantly populated by suburban and urban representatives.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.