Senate approves vital land conservation initiatives

Apr 20, 2016

Sunrise on the Washington, DC mall

Hallie Smith, The Wilderness Society
The Wilderness Society praised land conservation provisions included in the energy bill approved today by the Senate.

The measure would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protect two wilderness areas in New Mexico and address water supply and river restoration efforts in the Yakima Basin in Washington state. 

“The Wilderness Society applauds progress toward permanent authorization for the nation’s most important conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Alan RowsomeSenior Director of Government Relations for Lands at The Wilderness Society and Co-Chair of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.  “This 50-year-old law has invested in parks, trails, historic sites and ball fields in virtually every county in the U.S.”

Authorization for the LWCF expired last September but Congress later voted to extend funding for three years. The measure passed by the Senate would permanently reauthorize LWCF in a way designed to balance land acquisition with other conservation programs important to states, and it would permanently reauthorize the Historic Preservation Fund. It also creates a new National Park Maintenance and Revitalization Fund to address the maintenance backlog at some of our nation’s most treasured public places.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund invests in local parks as well as American treasures such as Grand Canyon National Park.  The program is funded with a small portion of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in public waters – not through taxation.

The Cerros del Norte Conservation Act (S. 1240), included in the Senate bill, would designate more than 20,000 acres of protected wilderness within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument as the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and Rio San Antonio Wilderness. These areas contain thousands of acres of critical habitat for wildlife like elk and birds, as well as ideal recreation spots for hiking, camping and hunting. The bill was introduced by New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall in 2015.

"The local community has long called for protections for the Rio Grande del Norte region and the 2013 monument designation by President Obama was a critical step toward doing that. Only Congress has the ability to designate wilderness though, and doing so in these parts of the Monument would further the community’s vision for the region," said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director for The Wilderness Society.  "Hispanic leaders and organizations, small business owners and the Taos and Mora Valley Chambers of Commerce, sportsmen and ranchers, the Taos Pueblo and local elected officials all have come together to support the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act. We join them in celebrating the protection of these lands that provide critical habitat, drinking water and recreation opportunities for New Mexicans and those who visit our state.”

Also included in the bill is the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project Phase III Act of 2015 (S. 1694) that would ensure sustainable water supply for farms, fish and communities along with other fisheries restoration measures in the Pacific Northwest. The bill supports the multifaceted Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a precedent-setting strategy for water management supported by conservation groups, farmers, irrigators, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and federal, state and county governments. The bill authorizes projects and studies that will dramatically improve water supply reliability, restore what may become one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the lower 48 states, protect public lands and upgrade antiquated irrigation systems. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA); U.S. Representatives Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced a companion bill, H.R. 4686, in the House of Representatives on March 4. 

“The Yakima Plan is a model for integrated water management and climate resiliency that reduces drought impacts, protects our public lands as well as waters and considers farmers, fish and families equally,” said Ben Greuel, Washington State Director for The Wilderness Society. “The partnership and cooperation that the Yakima Plan embodies has helped foster a spirit of cooperation that is extending to other challenges and opportunities in the basin, such as improving recreation infrastructure. We applaud Senator Cantwell for her continued leadership in the effort to make the Yakima Plan reality.”

Commenting about the legislation broadly, Katy Siddall, Director of Government Relations for Energy and Climate at The Wilderness Society, said, “We appreciate the leadership shown by Chairwoman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell for moving forward with the first comprehensive energy package in nearly 20 years.”

She applauded the inclusion of investments in renewable energy and many non-controversial updates to important federal programs.

“It is long past time to modernize the way we develop and distribute our energy as a nation, particularly on our public lands,” Siddall continued. “However, this package does little to reform the broken leasing systems governing publicly owned coal, oil and gas resources and instead includes troublesome provisions that jeopardize environmental review to expedite permits for traditional development.”

Siddall called other components of the bill problematic, as well. “Provisions in this bill incentivize the sale of public lands and other assets, ignoring consistent public polling that shows Westerners overwhelmingly oppose selling off America’s public lands. We hope that as Congress moves to combine this bill with the House version (H.R. 8), they work to resolve these provisions, along with significant improvements to the House bill.”

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The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org.    

Contacts:

Alan Rowsome, Senior Director, Government Relations for Lands, alan_rowsome@tws.org, 202-429-2643

Michael Reinemer, Deputy Director, Wildlands Communications, michael_reinemer@tws.org, 202-429-3949