Apr 29, 2019

Congress Working Series: Bipartisan Lands Conservation Package

Too often, the Beltway news is driven by political division and partisan debates. Regardless, there are still pieces of legislation greatly benefitting the American people that have gone through the legislative process and been enacted into law. These bills, many of which have flown under-the-radar, show that despite the partisanship, Congress CAN work toward getting things done on behalf of Americans by coming together across party lines 

Congress That Works has launched the “Congress Working” series to highlight the positive pieces of legislation that—through dedication and bipartisan action—have succeeded. Our hope is that congressional reform through the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress will make it easier for bipartisan consensus to be built in Congress so that the institution is better able to do its job. 

One such example of Congress working is the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act which was passed by Congress in February and then signed into law by President Trump on March 12.  This is the largest conservation legislation in a decade, and a diverse collection of more than 100 individual bills introduced by both Democrats and Republicans over several congresses brought it to fruition.  This legislative package includes individual bills that address national parks, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, land exchanges and transfers, wildfire operations, federal land boundary adjustments, and much more.  Further, the legislation permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund which provides funding for critical federal and state lands and waters.   

Among several interesting elements included in this bill, it would establish Theodore Roosevelt genius prizes to help the Fish and Wildlife Service to work on technological innovations to prevent wildlife poaching and manage invasive species. It also creates a program that would allow fourth graders a free pass to visit national parks and other federal areas. The bill also expands the scope and eligibility of the Public Lands Corps, the public-private partnerships through which agencies engage young people and veterans in conservation and other service projects. 

How did this legislation make it over the finish line? Bridging the interests of members on both sides of the aisle. The broad package bridges interests from hunters to land conservation groups: it is projected to save taxpayers $9 million while also protecting 1.3 million acres as wilderness—our country’s highest level of land protection. What’s more, every state will experience the benefits of the package.  

That’s not to say that trade-offs weren’t made to bridge these broad interests. An effort this extensive takes time to get across the finish line, and this package was a hard-fought public process. In many cases, there needs to be local support before a bill is even drafted.  Several compromises were made to bring together diverse sides representing sportsmen, conservationists, local governments, and Native Americans. For example, a county in Utah released over 900,000 acres and 60 miles of protection on the Green River in exchange for more than 75,000 acres for development elsewhere. Most importantly, members with very divergent views on the need for more federal land acquisition reached an agreement through several key compromises to permanently authorize the historic Land and Water Conservation Fund.   

This major initiative represents what Congress can achieve when members work together.  It demonstratea commitment to enhancing our country’s natural heritage and the enduring conservation commitment that citizens have long supported.  Additionally, it honors a legislator who was dedicated to conservation throughout his storied career, Representative John Dingell.  Through a Congress That Works, legislative efforts like this can become the norm, not the exception.     

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