There are signs of conservation life this week in the halls of Washington.

Senate Bill 47, introduced in January by Senators Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Maria Cantell (WA), is a massive bipartisan public lands package that will not only protect millions of acres of land but will also cement into law key conservation programs at a historic level. Headlining the package is the embattled Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that siphons hundreds of millions of dollars from oil and gas royalties earned by government leases, and directs that money to conservation efforts. The LWCF, seemingly always on life support, expired last year when Congress failed to renew the program. This new bill, however, permanently authorizes funding for the LCWF, something conservation groups have been clamoring for decades. And it has support in the Senate, passing an early vote on Tuesday, with a final vote expected this week.

That faint swishing you hear is the sound of millions of conservationists crossing their fingers in waiting.

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Of course, the bill has to be passed by Congress and signed by the President, but this an impressive and positive step in the direction of putting our country’s money where its mouth is in terms of committing to supporting the preservation and legacy of our wild spaces and public lands. The bill is huge and as a product of years of negotiation, it includes bits of many different conservation groups’ goals and particular concerns, but all under the umbrella of strengthening protections of wilderness, protecting access to that wilderness, and helping to pay for the preservation of that wilderness.

Sporting groups have come together from across the country to back the bill. Well, not just back it, but aggressively push for its passage.

“This Public Lands package is an incredible victory for the sporting community,” said Aaron Kindle, senior manager of western sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the largest and oldest conservation groups in the country. “It conserves both programs and lands we love and ensures sporting opportunities for years to come. We really need to see this package cross the finish and put a bow on many years of hard work.”

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Desert bighorn would enjoy expanded habitat protection if the bill passes. Photo: Donald Giannatti

Industry leaders too are pushing support. The Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Alliance, and The Conservation Alliance have sent a letter to Congress pressing the Senate to pass SB 47 as soon as possible.

So, what’s in it?

Well, the major bit of legislation is permanently authorizing the LWCF. “Any conversation about S. 47 starts with LWCF,” says Steve Kline, of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a group that backs the bill. The LWCF was created 54 years ago and, over the decades, has pumped billions of dollars into habitat restoration, trail maintenance, access programs, and on and on. Twice now, the LWCF has been allowed to expire before being revived months later, a process that leaves conservation groups dependent on those funds in the lurch.  Several bills were proposed last year that would have authorized the LWCF forever, but none were passed.

Other important bits of legislation sure to make varied groups of outdoor users happy, though, perhaps leave some unhappy, are included in this bill.

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Hundreds of miles of salmon and steelhead habitat, especially in Oregon, will be protected throughout the West by tagging more rivers with the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation and creating federally mandated habitat conservation zones. More than 600,000 miles of the Utah desert would be protected as habitat for bighorn sheep, bears, elk, and mountain lions. New Mexico would see conservation measures designed to protect javelina, pronghorn antelope, elk, and mule deer populations. The Department of the Interior would be directed to mitigate habitat fragmentation in the Southern California desert.

Photo: Holly Mandarich

The package would also include many protections outlined in the recently proposed WILD Act, which would help the US Fish and Wildlife service help efforts to protect endangered species and reduce human and animal conflicts in wild spaces in the US and in countries that need help with conservation resources.

SB 47 would also likely open more federal lands to hunting as it would essentially make hunting legal in public lands unless those lands are specifically closed, reversing a current policy which effectively closes public lands to hunting unless they’ve been designated as hunting areas.

The package is, of course, a compromise, so may leave some conservationists a little unhappy. “We’re happy to see that the LWCF would be permanently authorized, but we also want full funding,” says Drew Youngdyke of the National Wildlife Federation. As it was originally written, the LWCF made available as much as $900 million per year in conservation funding, but typically, only about $400 million is allocated each year.

And not everybody will be happy to see an expansion of hunting in public lands.

“This isn’t a blanket policy that will make everyone happy,” says Ryan Callaghan, Director of Conservation for the Meateater, a hunting/conservation/outdoor media website, who has spent time lobbying for conservation measures. “It’s a compromise. But we’re making progress, we’ve got momentum. The wheels only fall off [in conservation lobbying] when we start to see divisions among outdoor groups pop up that really shouldn’t be there.”

And Congress permanently committing to fund the LWCF is a massive leap in the right direction. One that many conservationists, your author included, doubted would ever happen. More than 40 hook and bullet organizations across the country have sent letters to Washington supporting the bill’s passage. The bipartisan nature of the bill may not only help it pass the Senate but also maybe, just maybe let it clear the viper’s nest that is the House of Representatives. Then be signed into law by the President. There’s reason for hope.

The bill may be voted on by Thursday. Stay tuned for updates.

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