WE INTERRUPT the despairing over D.C. drama and dysfunction with a bit of good news. The Senate last week passed a sweeping lands conservation bill by a vote of 92 to 8. The House is poised to do the same, also in bipartisan numbers. President Trump seems never to have seen a conservation policy he liked. But even if he decided to play spoiler, the bill has enough support to override a presidential veto.
The strikingly bipartisan package was the result of years of work and compromise, with lawmakers from across the country seeking protections for specific sites in their states. Combining more than 100 proposals resulted in the designation of 1.3 million acres of new wilderness areas, which would receive the highest levels of preservation. Three national parks would be created. The home of civil rights icons Medgar and Myrlie Evers would become a national monument. Mining and drilling would become off-limits on land near Yellowstone and the North Cascades National Park.
Environmentalists got more conserved land. Outdoor enthusiasts got assurances that they could hunt and fish on public lands unless specifically told they could not. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, deserves credit for overseeing the bill’s formation.
One big change would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had become a symbol of Washington stalemate. Popular with both parties, it channels royalty revenue the federal government receives from offshore oil and gas projects into conservation projects, from expanding national parks to protecting habitat on private lands to maintaining Civil War battlefields. Since 1965, the fund has distributed some $4 billion in grants to 42,000 state projects and protected 2.4 million acres, according to the Interior Department. These include reefs along the California coast, deep-blue lakes in Montana and the ecological wealth of the Everglades.
But despite the fund’s popularity, Congress failed to reauthorize the fund last September — for the second time in three years — amid squabbles over how much money to set aside and where to put it. This latest bill would help end the squabbling.
Thus, the good news: Congress is not completely broken, and conservation need not be a partisan issue. In fact, the bill shows that the traditional pathway for preserving precious lands has not disappeared. Spectacular places that start as presidentially designated national monuments often become national parks or wilderness areas when lawmakers decide to ratify presidential conservation efforts with higher levels of protection. Parts of national monuments in New Mexico, for example, would become wilderness areas under the new bill. After Mr. Trump slashed away at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Bears Ears National Monument, this process seemed in danger of breaking down. Congress has put it back on track.