Massive Public Lands Bill Becomes Law – Including Good News for California

Landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Night Owl, CC0.

A massive collection of Republican and Democratic natural resources bills called S. 47, the Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, was signed by the president on March 12, 2019.

The bill stands out as unique in a number of ways. First, in this highly partisan age, it is a bipartisan measure that passed overwhelmingly in both houses. Second, it is not filled with a multitude of anti-environmental provisions so heinous that conservationists must oppose it (although there were some compromises—read more on page 9). Lastly, it is the first bill to pass in nine years that protects public lands and waters in California. Golden State conservationists struggled for nearly a decade to pass bills through a historically-dysfunctional Congress. The passage of S.47 is a welcome end to this long drought.

What will it do for California? First and most importantly, the bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which Congress had allowed to expire in 2018. The U.S. government earns billions of dollars every year from royalties on the sale and extraction of oil and gas from public lands and waters. $900 million of these royalties are supposed to be put into the LWCF. National parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and recreation facilities in every one of our 50 states were set aside for Americans to enjoy thanks to these federal funds from the LWCF.

The LWCF also provides grants to protect wildlife habitat, critical drinking water supplies and disappearing historical resources. California has received approximately $2.5 billion in LWCF funding over the last 50 years. Now, conservationists must fight to get as much of the $900 million every year as possible until the day comes when our nation weans itself off of fossil fuels.

S. 47 will also greatly benefit the public lands in the California desert. The legislation includes another bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) and Congressman Paul Cook’s (R-8th District) California Desert Protection and Recreation Act (CDPRA). CDPRA will protect over 375,000 acres (585 square-miles) of public land as “wilderness” (the most protective designation available for federal public lands), enlarge Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve by over 39,000 acres, and designate over 77 miles of streams under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which means that they can never be dammed or developed in other ways. The bill will also protect vast swaths of the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts from all development, including mining, and includes a provision requiring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to “establish policies and procedures to ensure the preservation of wildlife corridors and facilitate species migration” across the 10 million acres it manages in the region.

The bill also protects specific special places in California’s vast deserts, such as the Alabama Hills in Inyo County. Countless movies, television shows, commercials and other productions have used the superlative Alabama Hills as a backdrop, including Django Unchained, Star Trek, and Iron Man. The legislation will protect these scenic values while maintaining and restoring its important plant and wildlife habitat and recreation values. The bill will also protect and attempt to restore an area in Imperial County known as Vinagre Wash, part of the largest complex of Sonoran Desert woodlands in California and require the government to establish a Desert Tortoise Conservation Center for the purpose of supporting the recovery of this imperiled species.

Of primary interest to Congressman Cook is the fact that the bill will also protect six existing off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation areas from ever being closed to recreation by the military, for mining or for energy development, all of which has happened in the past. The BLM is required to develop management plans for the six areas for the first time. This is important because while they are all popular sites for OHVs (and have been so since the 1950s), these areas have never undergone any formal planning processes to identify and mitigate the impacts of OHV use.

Lastly, the bill also establishes a memorial to the victims of the failure of the Saint Francis Dam in Los Angeles County in 1928 that killed an estimated 400-600 people downstream. The dam failure did not fit with the empire-building narrative in California at the time, so the disaster and its victims were never given proper recognition. Now, a memorial and monument will be established at the now-peaceful and pleasant site of the former dam.