Few issues draw broad support across the American electorate these days. But one stands out as both popular among voters and ripe for action by Congress: enhancing the protection of our country’s lands and rivers.
Regional polling shows strong support for such conservation, and a 2017 summary of prior national polling—the most recent broad look at this issue—found that a majority believe that investing in conservation is important, regardless of their political affiliation or the state of the economy.
Public land visitor records show that, after an initial drop-off early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people seeking recreation and education outdoors has risen steadily, a trend that’s also reflected in sales of gear for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, backcountry and cross-country skiing, and much more. That’s a boost to states and communities that depend on visitors and their spending at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, grocery stores, and souvenir shops, and on tours and guides.
Nationwide, outdoor recreation generated $689 billion in national economic output and 4.3 million jobs, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
These are among the key factors, along with broad bipartisan support, that motivated lawmakers to seek to protect treasured public areas with several bills now before Congress, including measures to safeguard remarkable landscapes and waterways from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California, and from the Rocky Mountains and desert Southwest to Florida, Virginia, and Maine.
Among the pending bills is the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act, which would safeguard and secure public access to more than 1 million acres of existing public lands and some 500 miles of rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, the Los Padres National Forest, and Carrizo Plain National Monument along California’s Central Coast, and national forests in northwestern California. The House of Representatives passed the bill in 2021 and it is awaiting action in the Senate.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO), also passed the House last year and is awaiting action in the Senate. The measure would add or expand protections across 400,000 acres of critical public lands in the Centennial State, including 73,000 acres of new wilderness—the highest level of federal public land protection—and 80,000 acres of recreation and conservation management areas. The bill would also create the country’s first national historic landscape: Camp Hale, the original home of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which used the rugged terrain of the Rockies to train thousands of soldiers in the 1940s.
Some 1,700 miles east, the Virginia Wilderness Amendment would expand two existing wilderness areas—Rich Hole and Rough Mountain—by a combined 5,600 acres in the George Washington National Forest, an increasingly popular outdoor recreation destination 75 miles west of Washington, D.C. This legislation has also passed the House and has been introduced in the Senate.
And a bill to designate Maine’s York River as wild and scenic passed the House with bipartisan support and has been marked up in the Senate. Led by the entire Maine congressional delegation—Senators Angus King (I) and Susan Collins (R) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D) and Jared Golden (D)—and supported by local stakeholders, the legislation would help sustain vital natural habitat, commercial fishing, drinking water supplies, and numerous archaeological sites within the York River watershed.
And separate bipartisan bills to study the suitability of the Kissimmee and Little Manatee rivers in Florida for wild and scenic status have been approved by a key House committee.
These bills are just some of more than a dozen conservation measures that have been introduced in at least one chamber and seen initial movement; it seems logical that lawmakers can find agreement on several and pass them this year.
And that would please the U.S. public. The push to better safeguard America’s waterways is in line with 2021 polling, commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which shows that majorities of voters in the West from all political parties support stronger conservation for rivers nationwide because of myriad benefits that clean, healthy rivers and streams bring to people and nature. In another poll released in February, 86% of Western voters said issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife, and public lands are important in their decision to support an elected official, up from 80% in 2020 and 75% in 2016.
Economic benefits and bipartisan support aren’t the only important reasons for Congress to pass conservation legislation. First, spending time in nature has been shown to have physical and mental health benefits for people. Further, more Americans than ever want to ensure equitable access to outdoor recreation for people across all racial and socioeconomic strata. And finally, safeguarding habitat not only helps wildlife but also has been shown to limit the effects of climate change.
Our country’s public landscapes are among our greatest shared assets. They conserve critical ecosystems, improve resilience to climate change, document the nation’s evolving history, and promote equitable access to nature’s grandeur, all while supporting local economies and communities, a vital benefit during the pandemic recovery.
By moving forward with these conservation and economic proposals, Congress can show that it hears what voters are saying and can come together to pass legislation that benefits all Americans—now and for generations to come.
Marcia Argust leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.
This article was previously published on pewtrusts.org and appears in this issue of Trust Magazine.
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