WASHINGTON • The Senate on Tuesday approved a major public lands bill that revives a popular conservation program, adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates four new national monuments.
The measure, the largest public lands bill considered by Congress in a decade, combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic, add 2,600 miles of new federal trails, and create nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.
The Senate approved the bill, 92-8, sending it to the House.
Lawmakers from both parties said the bill’s most important provision was to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country. The program expired last fall after Congress could not agree on language to extend it.
LWCF has helped pay for hundreds of parks and recreation projects across Colorado.
Among Colorado provisions in the new combined bill:
• Language calling for a study of designating the site of the Amache World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans as a national historic park.
• A study of adding the route of explorer Zebulon Pike (for whom Pikes Peak is named) to the national scenic trails system.
• The addition of 280 acres to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Teller County.
• The addition of land to Arapaho National Forest.
When Congress failed to reauthorize LWCF before it expired last September, it prompted an outcry from the Colorado delegation.
On Tuesday, both of Colorado’s senators supported its renewal.
“After four years of working on this issue, the Senate was finally able to permanently reauthorize the crown jewel of conservation programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said in a statement.
“I have championed this program throughout my time in the Senate because of how important it is to all Coloradans who love our great outdoors.”
“Thank you to every Coloradan who has spoken up in support of LWCF, met with me across the state at an LWCF-funded project, and traveled to Washington to advocate for this critical program,” said Sen. Michael Bennet. “It’s your persistence that has led to this historic vote in the Senate to permanently save the conservation fund.”
The Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities cheered the news of LWCF’s passage in the Senate, but noted that the bill does not provide “full, dedicated funding for the program.”
The LWCF is funded by federal oil and gas lease revenue from offshore drilling. Congress is authorized under the legislation enacted in 1965 to spend $900 million per year to build or maintain projects on public lands but only twice allocated the full amount. Instead, Congress has diverted more than $21 billion from the LWCF trust fund to other purposes.
The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife estimates the LWCF helped pay for $147 million in state projects and $120 million for federal projects.
The federal part of the Colorado funding was only $61 million. However, the federal funds acted as seed money to help the state secure additional financing from other public and private sources.
The hodgepodge bill passed Tuesday offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.
The bill creates three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service and a fourth monument overseen by the Forest Service. The three park service monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi and the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky.
The Evers site was the home of the slain civil rights leader, while Mill Springs commemorates a Civil War battlefield. Camp Nelson was used as Union Army hospital and recruiting center during the Civil War. President Trump proclaimed Camp Nelson a national monument last year, but the bill gives it permanent, congressionally approved protection.
The bill also designates the former St. Francis Dam site in California as a national memorial and monument. The dam outside Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, killing 431 people in one of the largest tragedies in California history.
“While this monument will serve as a reminder of the consequences of a failure of infrastructure, it offers a lesson going forward,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.