Photograph by DAVID GUTTENFELDER, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A rainbow arches above Yellowstone National Park in Montana, ground zero for debates over the future of conservation.

Photograph by DAVID GUTTENFELDER, Nat Geo Image Collection

Far-reaching protections for Yellowstone, other Western lands pass Congress

Two proposed mines in the Yellowstone region will no longer go forward as part of a massive legislative package that expands conservation across the country.

President Donald J. Trump is expected to soon put his signature on a big legislative package that will make into law one of the largest efforts in land conservation in a generation.

The outcome of the legislation, called the Dingell Act to honor the late Democratic Congressman from Michigan, will include a trio of new national monuments, including two sites recognizing civil rights leaders; additions to desert national parks in California; protections to preserve scenic river corridors in Oregon, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; and almost two million acres of new federal wilderness, including 663,000 acres of spectacular redrock geological features called the San Rafael Swell in southern Utah where opposition to public land preservation is strong.

Yet another high-profile win for conservationists was an included bill to stop two proposed hardrock mines—one on the front doorstep of Yellowstone National Park and the other, nearby, in the Absaroka Mountains towering over Montana’s Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River. Over 400 businesses rallied to encourage all three members of Montana’s Congressional Delegation (comprising one Democrat and two Republicans) to get behind the bill. They led the charge.

Some conservationists say the biggest prize is permanent reauthorization of the popular federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund established in the 1960s, was set up to collect $900 million annually in royalties from offshore oil and gas production. That sum was intended to protect habitat as a tradeoff to potential despoliation caused by fossil fuel development.

According to the Interior Department, the fund since 1965 has invested $3.9 billion to acquire 2.4 million acres of key landscapes and it has supported 42,000 projects in states ranging from protecting open spaces, beachfronts, creating parks, river and greenways, sports fields, fishing access sites, and nature preserves. No law in American history has delivered more dividends benefitting more people, supporters say. But last autumn, LWCF for the first time was not reauthorized, setting off a huge political backlash.

As economists have pointed out, for every investment of $1 through the Land and Water Conservation Fund in projects that secure healthy habitat for wildlife, people to recreate or having a cleaner environment, $4 of benefits are realized. Outdoor recreation, fostered by public lands, also fuel an annual $900 billion industry and creates more than 7.6 million jobs.

“It is encouraging and inspiring to see Congress renew America’s long, bipartisan tradition of conserving lands, wildlife, and waters, bolstering rural economies, and guaranteeing public access to the outdoors for the enjoyment of all,” said Molly McUsic, president of the Wyss Foundation, whose founder the Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based businessman Hansjörg Wyss announced last autumn that he was giving $1 billion to the cause of conservation. Wyss and McUsic are hopeful that strong support for the Dingell Act might serve as a wakeup to the Trump administration in realizing that environmental protection is a winning position.

Noted McUsic, “[The new legislation] reflects years of work by communities across the country to save America’s most effective park program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and to protect the natural, cultural, and historic resources that should be handed down to future generations.”

Uniting Western interests?

Coming together over the issue were a pair of sometime friends and fiery adversaries, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, of Utah, former Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee, and his successor, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a Democrat and unabashed green crusader. When the GOP held sway in the House up until the November 2018 elections, Bishop aggressively led efforts to dismantle environmental laws and radically reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah.

He often sparred with Grijalva, yet this week they helped, along with former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, usher the omnibus package forward. Bishop said he backed it because it delivers guarantees of public access to many lands previously hard to reach.

Could the bill signify that conservation has the gravitational force to pull factions from the far left and right into the “radical political middle?” Brian Yablonski thinks it might. He is executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, a group that has resisted getting behind expanding the amount of land the federal government manages.

However, Yablonski who formerly served as chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and who worked for both the late GOP President George H.W. Bush and his son, Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida, says conservation is a historic expression of conservative thinking.

“The conservation of land, wildlife, and water done responsibly is one of those rare issues that can get Americans out from behind the political ramparts and working together,” Yablonski says. “The lands package recognizes the shifting demands of society as we come to value the outdoors and wildlife as part of our economy, national identity, and everyday quality of life.”

Benefiting wildlife migrations

Together with ecologist Arthur Middleton, a fellow of the National Geographic Society and professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Yablonski’s organization is one of a dozen groups across the political spectrum working on trying to save epic wildlife migrations involving elk, mule deer, and pronghorn in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Middleton calls those long distance pathways, some that facilitate seasonal animal commutes that stretch hundreds of miles, “an equivalent to the beating heart and breathing lungs” of the true Wild West. Recent appropriations of LWCF money helped protect vital habitat for pronghorn that spend summers in Grand Teton National Park and winters almost 200 miles away in Wyoming’s Red Desert.

This unparalleled region, one of the few on Earth that still holds all of its major mammals, including predators and prey species that existed millennia ago, “is a great, evolving experiment in the convergence of productive private and public lands—a blurred line to the species who move through its landscape, oblivious to the varied patchwork of agencies and landowners vital to their existence,” Yablonski said. “Policies that encourage better collaboration and cooperation along these converging fault lines with respect for both property rights and public interest will have a more lasting impact.”

Yablonski believes the Trump administration and the president’s newly nominated Interior Secretary David Bernhardt are supportive of safeguarding migration corridors that balances development and the concerns of private landowners with the habitat needs of wildlife.

Not all in the conservation movement are as confident. Bernhardt replaced the embattled Ryan Zinke who resigned amidst several investigations but who issued a secretarial order making wildlife corridor protection a priority.

Bernhardt and those reporting to him want to open more land and coastal areas to energy development, which critics say threatens the survival of sage grouse, the very same pronghorn and mule deer mentioned above, and caribou and polar bears in the Arctic.

The fate of future conservation efforts?

Moreover, although the Land and Water Conservation will be permanently authorized, it doesn’t mean Congress will appropriate the full $900 million that accrues annually in its coffers. In fact, seldom has that happened over the last 50 years as significant amounts of LWCF money have instead been siphoned off for other projects instead of meeting conservation objectives.

Political conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who voted against the Dingell Act and permanent reauthorization of LWCF, do not believe the federal government should be acquiring more land.

“There still remains a small pocket of anti-public land lawmakers who claim the government owns too much land or locks people out of it,” a lobbyist who worked on the new legislation but did not want to be identified told National Geographic. “But take a look, see the support for this legislation, and you can see the degree to which their power and following has shrunk.”

The current formula for allocating LWCF monies is that 40 percent each is directed toward federal and state projects with the remaining 20 percent available for other initiatives. Yablonski says that money should be available for maintenance and care of lands government already owns. He cites, for example, the multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog for trails, roads and other facilities in the national parks impairing the conservation experience.

State wildlife agencies, which have relied upon money generated through hunting and fishing licenses and the sale of outdoor gear and apparel, are struggling. Yablonski says funding sources need to be more flexible to help resolve those kinds of problems.

5 Iconic Animals of Yellowstone

U.S. Rep. Grijalva tells National Geographic that money intended for the Land and Water Conservation Fund “was a promise made to the American people.” He notes that some $20 billion of LWCF money exists essentially as an IOU in the U.S. Treasury but likely will never be recouped and is a reminder of how conservation—and more recently money set aside to address climate change—often takes a back seat.

“The needs for conservation funding, central to human health, are rapidly expanding, not shrinking,” Grijalva said.

Another positive aspect of the Dingell Act, he says, is that protected natural landscapes, secured through LWCF money, will be more resilient in buffering the effects of climate change on humans and wildlife forced to live on narrower margins.

Correction: The spelling of Molly McUsic's name has been fixed.