Op-Ed: Sens. Murkowski And Cantwell: The Significance Of The Public Lands Package

This Op-Ed represents the opinions of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), former ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Americans have a lot to celebrate in the sweeping public lands package the president signed into law this month. This landmark package includes more than 120 bills that will protect treasured landscapes, spur economic development, address a wide range of local land management issues and provide new opportunities for Americans to hike, fish, hunt and enjoy the outdoors.

As its lead sponsors in the Senate, we believe our bill also shows what is possible when members of both parties are willing to trade partisan sniping for consensus policy making. It requires an open and transparent review process, years of good faith negotiation and a willingness to understand the issues—but the results are clear and enduring.

A widely hailed provision within our legislation is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Established in 1964, the LWCF is a powerful tool to protect open space and access to the great outdoors. The fund has supported more than 42,000 state and local recreation activities ranging from hiking trails, hunting and angling opportunities to local ball fields, community playgrounds and urban wildlife habitat.

The LWCF uses offshore oil and gas revenues to support conservation and outdoor recreation. Yet Congress has repeatedly allowed the fund’s ability to collect those revenues to lapse, most recently last September. Our bill ends these unpredictable short-term extensions and incorporates reforms to strengthen its popular state-level program, which provides matching grants for state and local recreation sites.

Our lands package also improves public access to our shared public lands. We direct federal agencies to expand and enhance access for sportsmen and women for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation activities. We make ‘open unless closed’ the standard for Bureau of Land Management and National Forest System lands. And we require notice and the ability for public comment before any closures are allowed.

Other provisions solve problems and offer economic development opportunities. A land conveyance to Custer County, South Dakota, will help facilitate an airport expansion. In La Paz County, Arizona, we enable the construction of a large-scale solar project. And in Lake Bistineau, Louisiana, the bill resolves a federal surveying issue that left more than 200 residents holding clouded titles to their own property.

We were also pleased to incorporate new tools for communities across the country to deal with a changing climate and record droughts. Our bill extends the Equus Beds aquifer recharge project in Kansas. And it authorizes an integrated and collaborative approach to address water challenges hammered out in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.

For states like Alaska, Washington and Hawaii that are frequently threatened by natural hazards, we modernize our nation’s early warning and monitoring system for volcanic eruptions to ensure communities are safer and better protected. The bill also equips firefighters with the technology and tools they need to combat the growing threat of wildfires across the western United States.

We also took great care to incorporate conservation provisions driven by strong state and local support. Our bill designates five national monuments and designates more than 1 million acres of land as federal wilderness. Importantly, all of these designations were driven by strong state and local support forged from years of stakeholder dialogue and compromise.

In all, our bill includes priorities from nearly every member of the Senate. It took years of regular order process in committee and months of intensive bipartisan, bicameral negotiations to be developed. That work ultimately underscored a fundamental point: Even at a time of divided government, we can still achieve overwhelming consensus.

Our bill passed the Senate with 92 votes. The House of Representatives passed it without amendment with 363 votes. We thank the leadership of the House Natural Resources Committee for making that possible. We also want to extend our profound appreciation to the hundreds of stakeholder groups and thousands of constituents who weighed in with their passionate support.

One of the final actions we took was to rename the act the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act—in tribute to the recently passed former Dean of the House who helped write the original LWCF Act and served as a founding member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

We’re proud of the bill that now bears his name. We’re proud of the benefits it will provide to communities and the protections it will bring to some of our most cherished public lands. And we’re proud of the bipartisan process that propelled it through Congress, en route to the president’s desk, where it became law.

By:  Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Maria Cantwell
Source: REI