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Congress today passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill packed with a record $740 billion for ships, tanks, airplanes, and things that go boom. This year, though, it also contains provisions to set aside more than one million acres of new wilderness, to designate 1,200 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers, and to ban uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed. Wait, what?

Just how the Pentagon’s annual shopping list came to include two landmark conservation bills is a study in America’s byzantine political process; whether or not they stay there could be the most important conservation question of this Congress.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies in the Trump administration want all those guns and airplanes for the Pentagon, they’re going to have to take the wilderness and scenic rivers, too.

Last October, after years of effort, House lawmakers passed the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which would permanently protect more than 400,000 acres of public land in that state. Then in February, the House passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, which would designate more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness across the West and protect more than 1,000 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers in California and Washington.

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“We have been working on this legislation for more than 20 years,” Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette said at the time. “The areas that will be protected under this bill are some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes that our country has to offer. And by officially designating them as wilderness, as this bill does, we will finally be providing them the permanent protection they deserve.”

Aspens in the proposed Spraddle Creek addition to the Holy Cross Wilderness near Vail. Mason Cummings/The Wilderness Society.

DeGette may have spoken too soon. Neither bill made it out of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, let alone a floor vote. The White House issued a statement threatening to veto the CORE Act in the unlikely event it passed the Senate.

In response, House Democrats dusted off an old legislative trick. They added the full text of both bills as amendments to the must-pass defense bill, then added another stalled bill aimed at protecting 1 million acres of public lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies in the Trump administration want all those guns and airplanes for the Pentagon, they’re going to have to take the wilderness and scenic rivers, too.

At least, that’s the plan. One serious hurdle remains. The House and Senate have to pass identical versions of the defense bill before it can become law, and right now the conservation amendments are only included in the House version. That means the legislation will ultimately be decided in the House-Senate conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will draft the compromise bill that will ultimately become law. The conference will likely take place in September and involve plenty of political deal-making, so there’s a fair chance those Wild and Scenic Rivers and millions of wild acres will be traded away for some other legislative priority. Still, American Whitewater lobbyist Tom O’Keefe believes there’s reason for optimism.

“I think some people will make a legitimate argument that these things are unrelated to defense,” he says. “Others of us would make the argument that this was previously passed by the House, and attaching something to a must-pass piece of legislation is a tried and true strategy and this is the vehicle that’s moving.”

The legislation does have a military connection, though it’s tenuous at best. The CORE Act would create a first-of-its-kind National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained during the Second World War. The legendary ski troops pushed the Nazis out of Northern Italy and many were instrumental in building the outdoor industry after the war.

Significantly, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has signaled strong support for the amendments. “It’s critical we preserve and protect these public lands to improve biodiversity, safeguard our waters, and improve research as we continue to combat climate change,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) tweeted Tuesday. Smith’s support suggests that the Democratic establishment isn’t just paying lip service to the conservation amendments. “The fact that he’s willing, as the chair of the Armed Services Committee, to make a public statement that these amendments are important to him is significant,” O’Keefe says.

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A mountain biker in Colorado’s White River National Forest. The CORE Act would create a 20,000-acre recreation management area in the Tenmile Range that would protect access to world-class outdoor recreation such as mountain biking, hiking, and hunting.Mason Cummings/The Wilderness Society

Another reason for optimism is that conservation is not a partisan issue. As we’ve seen recently with the Dingell Act and the Great American Outdoors Act, folks may differ on exactly how we get there, but clean air and water poll well across the political spectrum.

One place that’s played out is Colorado’s Thompson Divide, where an unlikely coalition of ranchers, sportsmen, and outdoor sports enthusiasts has worked for more than a decade to limit oil and gas drilling in west-central Colorado. That effort led to a central pillar of the CORE Act—the withdrawal of 200,000 acres of public land from future energy development. The area between Carbondale and Paonia, Colorado, includes prime wildlife habitat and the headwaters of multiple river systems, not to mention world-class mountain biking and ranches that have been in local families for generations.

CORE Act sponsor Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) says that kind of local involvement is why he’s not giving up on the bill. “The CORE Act was carefully crafted by Coloradans over the last decade and they deserve to see this bill—which would conserve treasured public lands in our state and make major investments in our outdoor recreation economy—considered by the Senate,” he says.

Deguse added the CORE Act and the Grand Canyon mining withdrawal as amendments to the NDAA on Friday. The same day, DeGette offered the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act as an amendment to the defense bill. Then co-sponsors started signing on. By Friday night, O’Keefe says, “Something that people thought was a long-shot impossible strategy became reality.” The defense bill passed the House Tuesday evening with the CORE Act, the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act and the Grand Canyon mining withdrawal still on board.

Those amendments make the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act one of the most significant public land conservation measures in recent years, second only to the 2019 Dingell Act. It comes on the heels of the Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in the Senate last month and is expected to pass the House later this week.

The proposed Sheep Mountain Special Management Area would set aside 21,663 acres in the San Juan Mountains between Ophir and Silverton, Colorado. Mason Cummings/The Wilderness Society

Make no mistake: Public lands have been under renewed assault since the day Donald Trump took office. He started by slashing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments by two million acres and his administration is steadily working through a list of 100 environmental rules it has targeted for rollback. He installed a coal lobbyist as head of his EPA, and replaced him with another coal lobbyist when the scandals became too numerous to ignore. He gave control of the Bureau of Land Management to a man hellbent on giving public lands away. He gutted the Clean Water Rule and the Endangered Species Act and pulled America from the Paris Climate Accord when the world most needed our leadership. His new vehicle emissions standards will pump an additional billion tons of C02 into the atmosphere.

It’s been a tough three years for environmental regulations, but on the legislative front public lands have fared quite well. The Dingell Act was the biggest public lands bill in a generation, and if House Democrats manage to pull off their defense bill gambit, the 116th Congress will be remembered for its historic contribution to public spaces.

“We’re on the verge of the most significant legislative achievements of this Congress being in the public lands conservation space,” O’Keefe says. “I never would have thought that in January 2018.”

Top Photo: The Thompson Divide by Jon Mullen/The Wilderness Society.

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