By Amanda Barragar and Ryan Henson
On February 26, the House of Representatives, with support from both Republicans and Democrats, passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act (H.R. 803) with a 227-200 vote. This Act bundles many public lands bills, including Rep. Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act, The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act sponsored in the House by Representative Salud Carbajal, The San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act sponsored in the House by Representative Judy Chu and The Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act sponsored in the House by Representative Adam Schiff. The package in its entirety would protect more than 1 million acres of public land and 1,000 miles of rivers in California and other Western states. The proposal promotes restoration of impacted watersheds, improves fire management, expands recreation opportunities and enhances the local economy.
Here in California, H.R. 803 will:
- Protect 630,728 acres (more than 985 square-miles) of public land as wilderness;
- Protect over 406,00 acres through other designations;
- Protect 684.5 miles of streams as Wild and Scenic Rivers;
- Improve the management of lands to enhance equitable benefits for all Americans and to strengthen ecological resilience by:
- Promoting restoration and fire-resilience on over 729,000 acres of mostly previously logged federal land;
- Encouraging the cleanup of areas on federal land impacted by illegal marijuana growing;
- Authorizing the construction of new public lands visitors’ centers;
- Requiring a study of the feasibility of establishing hundreds of miles of new non-motorized trails;
- Improving equitable access to public lands; and
- Ensuring that Native Americans can continue to use lands for cultural purposes.
This is the third time that Rep. Huffman’s bill has passed through the House, each time with bipartisan support, but the first time with Democrats in control of the Senate. This difference increases the chance the measure will become law. In a press conference Huffman said, “we’re going to be tenacious to look for every opportunity to attach this to any package to come to a vote. If this bill gets to the Senate, it will pass with bipartisan support.”
H.R. 803 was passed relatively quickly by the House because the bills included in it have all had hearings and have been thoroughly discussed and debated. As the bill approached a final vote, some lawmakers attempted to add amendments opposed by conservationists, including one that would prohibit an area from being designated wilderness if it had recently burned. All of the truly objectionable amendments were voted down.
Another amendment meant to divide the Democrats on renewable energy was offered by Utah Representative John Curtis. The Curtis amendment requires the government to study the lands protected by the PAW Act to determine if they contain any minerals important for renewable energy or battery technology. The amendment passed because several Democrats voted for it, despite the amendment being unnecessary for a host of reasons.
Not all of the amendments were objectionable. For example, the PAW Act was amended to include the Outdoors For All Act. Sponsored by Representative Nanette Barragán, this bill establishes an outdoor recreation legacy partnership program under which the Department of Interior may award grants to eligible states, counties, cities, tribes, and other entities for projects to acquire land and water for parks and other outdoor recreation purposes, and develop new or renovate existing outdoor recreation facilities. Priority will be given to projects that engage and empower underserved communities and youth, provide opportunities for youth employment or job training, establish or expand public-private partnerships, and take advantage of coordination among various levels of government. The Outdoors For All Act is seen as an important step forward in addressing issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion when it comes to public land conservation.
This legislation is passing the House much earlier in the Congressional session than the previous two times, giving the Senate plenty of time in this calendar year to pass the bill. Moving this legislation to the Senate is of high priority to Rep. Schiff, a sponsor of another bill in the package. Quoted during a press conference he stated, “there is great receptivity on the democratic side, and (this) has had bipartisan support.” The Biden Administration strongly supports these bills, which will, in part, help the administration’s climate goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and oceans by 2030.