Amid Turmoil In Washington, Senate Passes Historic Public Lands Package

Feb 14, 2019

Members of Maine's congressional delegation and environmental and outdoor groups are praising Senate passage this week of a historic public lands package that includes permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The legislation is expected to win strong support in the House, and it comes after President Trump has pushed to scale back protections for public lands.

The legislation protects an additional 1.3 million acres as wilderness, including nearly 300,000 acres in New Mexico alone. It conserves 620 miles of rivers, expands the boundaries of several national parks and establishes four new monuments, priorities President Trump has generally questioned or rejected. Instead, he's pushed to open public land for development and to scale back monuments in several states.

But the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been called "the crown jewel of conservation programs," and Maine Sen. Susan Collins is among those who pushed hard for its permanent reauthorization.

"I think one reason that those of us who pushed so hard for this were successful is that this program has created outdoor recreational opportunities in every county across the country, in every county in every state," Collins says.

Those opportunities, Collins says, include not just parks and wildlife refuges, but trails and municipal ball fields. In Maine, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect some of Maine's most treasured landscapes such as Acadia National Park, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and the Bigelow Mountains. It also provides public access for recreation including hunting and fishing and funding for working forests.

Kate Dempsey is the director of the Nature Conservancy in Maine.

"What it's allowed us to do in Maine is ensure that over the last 15 years, that Maine forests have remained in forest so that we have forest conservation while also being able to have forest in production."

Despite the fact that royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling provide the revenue for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and that taxpayers are not footing the bill, critics say the program just gives the federal government ownership of too much land. This is an especially sensitive issue in some western states. In the past there hasn't been a guarantee that the 54-year-old program would be extended.

Now, Eliza Donoghue of Maine Audubon says there is more certainty for conservation projects even though spending is not required.

"What pleasantly surprised me was, not only did we get permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but it was accompanied by a lot of really outstanding conservation measures for the entirety of the United States."

The public lands package includes language authored by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins to protect the use of intertidal zones by clam and worm harvesters in Acadia National Park and permanently reauthorizes the Acadia National Park Commission, which serves as a facilitator between Acadia and surrounding communities.

Collins says the lopsided 92-8 Senate vote to pass the bill shows that despite the controversy, turmoil and, at times, chaos in Washington, Congress can still function to get something done.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2019 at 5:54 p.m. ET.