Congress again poised to pass major conservation legislation

Public land provisions would be step towards protecting 30% of America by 2030

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The Thompson Divide would be protected by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, included in the House National Defense Authorization Act | Photo by Jon Mullen, courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Just months after passing the historic Great American Outdoors Act, Congress is once again poised to pass major conservation legislation. Negotiators for the House and Senate are hoping to reach an agreement on a must-pass defense spending bill, including provisions that would protect iconic landscapes across the West. Passing these bills would be a key step towards protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, a bold goal that scientists say would combat the climate and nature crises, while strengthening economies and improving public health.

This summer, both chambers of Congress passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), annual legislation that directs spending for national defense agencies. In recent years, the NDAA has been used as a vehicle for public land and wildlife provisions. A Congressional conference committee is now looking to finalize a compromise bill, which would then be passed and signed into law during the upcoming “lame duck” session. Notably, the House version of the NDAA includes three key provisions, which, if adopted, would create lasting protections for public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington.

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View of the San Gabriel Mountains in California. The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act would expand San Gabriel Mountains National Monument | Ron Reiring, Flickr

One provision, the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, would designate 1.3 million acres of wilderness across the West and 1,000 miles of National Wild and Scenic Rivers in California and Washington. The bill, which enjoys broad public support, would expand protections in Washington’s Olympic National Forest, California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and Colorado’s Continental Divide, safeguarding watersheds, forests, and critical wildlife habitat.

Proposed addition to the Curecanti National Recreation Area, incorporated in the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act | Photo by Mason Cummings, courtesy of The Wilderness Society

A second, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, would protect 400,000 acres of public land across Colorado and create a new National Historic Landscape to honor the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, a specialized mountain warfare unit, during World War II.

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View of the Grand Canyon from Mather Point | W. Tyson Joye, National Park Service

Lastly, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act would permanently protect 1 million acres of public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims. This legislation would protect the Grand Canyon’s watershed, and the Native American tribal communities who depend on it, from toxic contamination.

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The Protect America’s Wilderness Act would designate new Wild and Scenic Rivers within the Olympic National Forest, protecting salmon like these | Alex Weinmann, U.S. Forest Service

Passage of these protections could not come at a more critical time. The American West is losing a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds, and climate change is turbocharging drought and wildfire across the region. These twin climate and nature crises are wreaking havoc on local communities and causing wildlife populations to plummet. At the urging of scientists, leaders in Congress are pushing an effort to protect 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, a goal that Western voters strongly support, according to recent polling. President-elect Biden has indicated he’ll sign an executive order establishing the “30 by 30” goal shortly after he takes office, but reaching that goal will require congressional action as well.

Congressional negotiators have just over a month to hammer out a deal before new legislators are sworn in. Building on the landmark Great American Outdoors Act, they now have an opportunity to protect iconic landscapes across the West for the benefit of local communities and generations to come.


Public lands and the outdoors, from the Center for Western Priorities

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