Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. The bill, which passed 227-220 (8 Republicans joined the Democratic caucus), combines eight separate pieces of legislation to collectively protect millions of acres of public lands and over 1,000 river miles in Colorado, Arizona, California, and Washington. Recreationists, conservationists, and local stakeholders applauded the passage and hope to see a vote on the Senate floor. Opponents of the bill claimed it did not follow proper committee procedures and is just a federal land grab.
As the title suggests, the bill deals in large part with wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System to keep lands in their absolute natural state and “be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.” This form of federal land protection can be controversial, because it generally limits industrial activities, but it is essential for preserving large tracts in natural states long into the future. Currently, the United States enjoys 111 million acres of wilderness areas from coast to coast. This package would designate nearly an additional 1.5 million acres as wilderness. The Wild and Scenic River System was enacted in 1968 and seeks to preserve certain rivers in their natural state for future generations. Currently, the system protects 13,413 miles of rivers from development and degradation.
“Backcountry Hunters & Anglers offers a big high five to our elected leaders in the House of Representatives,” BHA President and CEO Land Tawney said. “House decision makers appreciate the importance of these bills – and the critically valuable public lands and waters they can conserve – and prioritized their consideration in the opening days of the 117th Congress and the Biden administration.
“Now, on to the Senate!” concluded Tawney. “Together, when we use our voices – as sportsmen and women, as conservationists, and as citizens – we can secure the future of America’s public lands and waters and the opportunities, adventure and solace they provide us all.”
Follow along for a state by state breakdown of the package.
When it comes to outdoor recreation Colorado is king, and it has amazing impact on the state’s economy. Outdoor recreation had a $12.2 billion impact on Colorado’s economy and employed 149,140 workers who earned $6.4 billion. Access to public lands and continued conservation work fuels Colorado, which is why the Colorado delegation has been so vocal and active on the issue. The CORE Act, a longtime Colorado priority, and the Colorado Wilderness Act are included in the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.
The CORE Act, which translates to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, would protect 400,000 acres of public lands, increase recreation opportunities, and establish 73,000 new acres of Wilderness. This piece of legislation has been around for a couple of years now, through the work of Senator Michael Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse. As such, the bill has wide-ranging support and is household knowledge among Coloradans. Congressman Neguse, who championed the bill in the House, said, “The CORE Act was crafted by Coloradans over the last decade, and has support from local communities, conservationists, ranchers and anglers throughout our state…we look forward to getting it over the finish line this Congress.”
Senator Bennet, who has worked on the CORE Act since the beginning, said: “Now that the House has done its job, Senator Hickenlooper and I won’t stop working until this bill passes the Senate and is signed into law.”
Colorado also scored wilderness protections–a stronger form of federal protection–for more than 660,000 acres across 36 areas through Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act. This bill has been reintroduced in Congress for nearly two decades and was drafted through public and stakeholder input.
Arizona’s crown jewel, the Grand Canyon, would gain protections through the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. The prospect of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and the impacts to the region’s water have been hot topics as of late. This provision, sponsored by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (AZ), would prohibit future mining on nearly one million acres of land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Both of Arizona’s Senators introduced similar legislation to protect this region from uranium mining.
Home to some of the most picturesque and wild rivers in the lower 48, Washington is a mecca for all types of river recreation. The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act includes the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would ensure Washington’s natural beauty is preserved for years to come. The package would designate 126,544 acres on the Olympic Peninsula as wilderness and another 5,346 as potential wilderness and add 460 miles of rivers to the Wild and Scenic River System, including 29 miles of the Elwha River. Congressmen Derek Kilmer (WA), who led this initiative, said: “I’m proud to see the House pass this practical, balanced strategy, that will protect the wildest and most pristine places on the Peninsula while ensuring we can keep and grow jobs in our natural resource industries and other sectors. I am grateful for the years-long collaboration to create a proposal that works for folks across the community – including Tribes, sportsmen, conservation groups, timber communities, business leaders, shellfish growers, and everyone in-between.”
California was the first state to move on the 30 by 30 initiative, a concept to preserve 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. California made significant progress on that goal through this package. Nearly one million acres in California would be protected–through expanding wilderness areas, designating new ones, and other forms of protections. Additionally, the package would add 525.5 miles of Californian waterways to the National Wild and Scenic River System.
Many of the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act’s provisions have been passed in previous Congresses, but failed to make it to the finish line. The new political dynamic in Washington, DC certainly increases the odds of enacting these bills. However, 60 votes and bipartisanship still remain an uncertainty in the Senate. Hopefully, conservation can continue to be a way for politicians and the country to come together. In any event, we will be following this massive public lands package as it–hopefully–moves through Congress and to President Biden’s desk, who has indicated his support.
If you want to learn more about this package or maybe a specific provision, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee has made a bunch of great resources on the package available.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has set up an easy-to-use form to encourage your senators to support the package–Click HERE!