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Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Massive Public Lands Package


The Senate has overwhelmingly passed a massive public lands package. It designates more than a million acres as wilderness and reauthorizes major conservation programs. The House is expected to pass it as well. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on why lawmakers can agree on this when they are divided over so much else.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Sharon Buccino has been working on public lands and environment issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council for a long time.

SHARON BUCCINO: And just at a time when here I am in Washington, D.C., kind of down and out 'cause nothing seems to be functioning, you have leaders on both sides of the aisle delivering what really is the largest and most sweeping lands package in the last quarter century.

ROTT: Needless to say, she thinks it's a welcome change. And there really is a lot in this bill, more than a hundred pieces of individual legislation all packaged together. Some of the pieces are broad, like sweeping new wilderness designations in Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California; new protections for hundreds of miles of rivers or the creation of four new national monuments. Other parts are super granular but locally important, like a bill clarifying that four Alaskan miners - just four - should be exempt from a specific federal fee. Really, it gets that detailed.

Stanley Senner, vice president for bird conservation at the Audubon Society, says that's partly why it got so much support. Parts of this legislation, he says...

STANLEY SENNER: Touch every member's district or state. And so there's something there that local people support all across the country regardless of your political stripe.

ROTT: The biggest example of this is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that funds outdoor recreation and conservation with money brought in from offshore oil and gas drilling, and it expired last year. There are some who oppose the program. Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah, who voted against the larger bill, equates it to a federal land grab. Overall, though, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is hugely popular.

SCOTT BRENNAN: Here in Bozeman, Mont., where I live and work, fully 80 percent of our city parks have benefited from land and water conservation funding.

ROTT: Scott Brennan is the Wilderness Society's Montana state director. And he thinks that the broad support this legislation got in a very divided Congress speaks to the power of public lands. A recent poll by Colorado College found that the vast majority of voters in the Mountain West regardless of their party viewed themselves as outdoor recreation enthusiasts and conservationists.

BRENNAN: No matter who you voted for in the last election, if you're a logger, you're a tree hugger, you're a hunter, you're a vegetarian, we all love public lands. And we agree on a lot.

ROTT: Hopefully, Brennan says, this bill can serve as a reminder of that. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.