With the new Congress two months into its term, lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have found agreement on legislation to help conserve our public landscapes and aid our nation’s economic recovery. By a bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives this week passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act—a package of bills that would enhance access to our public lands and rivers, safeguard them, and facilitate job creation.
These balanced conservation measures, which can play a role in sustaining local communities, were introduced in the last Congress, so they’ve already undergone much debate, revision, and committee action in the Senate and House. The Pew Charitable Trusts thanks House members for their quick action and urges the Senate to do the same.
Among the measures in the package is the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, which would safeguard roughly 400,000 acres of public lands—from the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado to the White River National Forest in the central mountains—and honor veterans by creating the first national historic landscape at Camp Hale, where World War II soldiers trained for winter combat.
The House also passed the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would protect more than 126,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest as wilderness and designate approximately 465 miles of rivers as wild and scenic in Washington state. The bill would also safeguard critical salmon habitat and sources of clean drinking water.
Other bills in the lands package aim to protect more than 1 million acres of public land and 500 miles of rivers in California, ensuring access to unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles; the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument along the state’s Central Coast; and key forests in the northwestern portion of the state.
Other measures in the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act would restore fish and wildlife habitat in California, Washington state, and Colorado; make California forests more resilient to fire; and protect the land and waters surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
As has become clear during the pandemic, people want and need to connect to the outdoors by walking in the neighborhood, gardening, or visiting a nearby park. And even during this time of limited travel, national parks and other public lands and waters have drawn large numbers of visitors.
Sound conservation policy helps ensure healthy herds of game for hunters; reliable runs of trout, salmon, and rockfish for anglers; and clean air and watersheds for nearby communities. Preservation of intact landscapes is also critical to a fully functioning ecosystem, which absorbs and stores carbon and can therefore play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change. And protected watersheds can provide clean water for towns, a significant potential savings for communities compared with the cost of municipal water treatment.
Clean water is not the only economic benefit of protecting lands and rivers, of course. Nationwide, outdoor recreation—from hunting, fishing, and camping to cycling, boating, and more—accounts for $788 billion in annual gross economic output and generates 5.2 million American jobs, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (2019 data).
Those are significant numbers, and behind the figures are real stories of gear-makers, retailers, outfitters, and others whose livelihoods depend on consumer access to public lands and waters.
The House-approved lands and rivers package would help local economies while conserving these places for generations of visitors. By acting soon on the package and sending it on to President Joe Biden for his signature, the Senate can improve access to public lands and rivers, preserve significant habitat, and continue to advance the nation’s economic recovery—all of which are inextricably linked.
Marcia Argust directs U.S. public lands and rivers conservation work for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 5, 2021.