Congressional Update: March Came in Like a Lion

Congressional Update: March Came in Like a Lion

March roared in with two significant public lands victories that together protect nearly 35,000 acres of American shoreline, marking the first action to preserve wilderness by the 113th Congress. 

On March 13, 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act.This safeguards more than 32,000 sandy and forested acres of Lake Michigan's shoreline as wilderness. This legislation has the distinction of being the first wilderness bill in the Golden Anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, and the first wilderness bill signed into law since 2009.

The bill was passed with the bipartisan leadership of Michigan's Republican Representative Dan Benishek and Democratic Senator Carl Levin, and it reflects the wishes of local residents who wanted to permanently preserve nearly 35 miles of coast and North and South Manitou islands in Lake Michigan for future generations. 

President Obama also designated part of California's Mendocino coastline on March 11 as the Point-Arena Stornetta National Monument under the Antiquities Act. Local business owners, elected officials, and other community leaders built momentum to protect 1,600 acres along the coast. Stornetta features an irreplaceable geological landscape that draws outdoor enthusiasts to its cliffs, dunes, and meadows.

The president's decision to declare this a national monument was inspired by legislation championed by four California members of congress: Representative Jared Huffman, Representative Mike Thompson, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. 

The first week of March, the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held a hearing on Representative Scott Tipton's (CO) Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act (H.R. 1839).

The legislation, built on years of dialogue between hikers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and local business and government leaders, would protect 70,000 acres of a special management area within the San Juan National Forest near Durango, Colorado. Those protections would include 38,000 acres of wilderness, home to old-growth Ponderosa pine, as well as native Colorado River cutthroat trout, deer, elk, and Canada lynx.  The bill now awaits markup by the full committee. 

Representative Rob Bishop (UT), chair of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, made a mid-March visit to an area in Nevada proposed by Representative Steven Horsford (NV) to become the state's first National Monument—over 22,000 acres of archeologically rich land, known as Tule Springs, just north of Las Vegas.

The bill, originally scheduled for a hearing in February, was postponed after language was added that significantly altered how the measure's land auctions would work. Chairman Bishop was able to meet with local elected officials and pledged to find a way forward on the bill. 

Though these victories offer much to celebrate, March closed with a reminder that public lands advocates must continue their vigilance in working to safeguard special places. On March 26, the House of Representatives passed Chairman Bishop's measure to curb presidential authority to designate national monuments. Specifically, the legislation would prevent a president from taking timely action to safeguard vulnerable public lands by requiring redundant and unnecessary reviews of national monument proclamations.

Timeliness was the clear congressional intent of the the Antiquities Act. The Bishop measure passed the House 222-201, over the objections of conservationists, outdoor business groups, and sportsmen. The narrow vote margin casts doubt on the bill's future in the Senate, but Pew will continue to monitor the legislation and work with our public lands champions to defeat any companion bill that might be introduced.