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Congress passes historically large public lands bill that sets a legal precedent for climbing in wilderness areas

Posted on: February 27, 2019


[UPDATE—President Donald Trump signed this bill into federal law on March 12. Formerly known as the Natural Resources Management Act, it has been renamed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Dingell was a Michigan Democrat in the House of Representatives who died February 7 as the longest-serving member of Congress. An obituary in the Washington Post described him as "a former park ranger who co-wrote the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but became one of conservationists' prime enemies for his fierce opposition to tightening fuel-efficiency standards."]

A climber rappels in Utah's San Rafael Swell, one of many areas across the country that will soon have wilderness designations if President Donald Trump signs the Natural Resources Management Act, which was passed by Congress on February 26. [Photo] John EasterlingA climber rappels in Utah's San Rafael Swell, one of many areas across the country that will soon have wilderness designations if President Donald Trump signs the Natural Resources Management Act, which was passed by Congress on February 26. [Photo] John Easterling

[On February 26] the House of Representatives passed a historic bipartisan bill titled the Natural Resources Management Act, 363-62. It cleared the Senate, 92-8, on February 12. [President Donald Trump signed it into law March 12.]

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The legislation combines more than 100 previously existing bills that affect public lands all over the country, and it includes provisions that pertain directly to climbers and climbing areas. The Emery County Public Land Management Act is a centerpiece of the legislation that will create nearly 700,000 acres of wilderness in Utah's San Rafael Swell, an area that has hundreds of climbing routes. The legislation also codifies the use of fixed anchors for climbing in a wilderness area.

The Access Fund explained the significance of the fixed anchor provision in a press release: "Wilderness climbing protections are poised to be written into law for the first time, creating a legal precedent that will make it easier for Access Fund and its local affiliates to protect wilderness climbing activities across the country."

The Act also appears to have mostly good implications for Native Americans. "There's a number of positive provisions for tribes in the bill," said Len Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. He observed that tribes and Alaska Native Corporations are mentioned more than 100 times in the bill, which has nine sections that have direct focus on tribal issues. "These often relate to affirming tribal consultation in the management of new and existing federal lands that are being changed or where there are direct interests that affect them," he said. "There's nothing that's overtly harmful, however, there's a couple provisions that limit certain tribes' abilities to influence natural resource management in the selection of lands to put into trust."

Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, an organization representing Native American interests in Utah, also indicated support for the Natural Resources Management Act. "As Americans we all hold shared interests in public lands and we should work together on solutions such as this one more often," he said.

While the bill does have some contentious aspects—more on that later—some other highlights include:

—The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had been allowed to expire in September 2018 for the second time since it was created in 1964. The LWCF is funded by offshore drilling and has generated billions of dollars that have been used for conservation and recreation projects across the country, from baseball diamonds to climbing areas;

—An addition of more than two million acres of protected lands, hundreds of miles of new scenic rivers and about 2,600 miles of new national trails, according to an early report by USA Today;

—Two 13,000-foot peaks in Colorado's Uncompahgre National Forest will be named after Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, two influential climbers who were killed in an avalanche on Mt. Genyen (6204m) in China in 2006.

"[The bill is] historic, by any stretch of the word," Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock recently told Alpinist. "It's a super complicated package that was put together.... Access Fund has been working on some of these for years, taking a lot of rejection for some of these, and it took something like this to get them done."

It's also solid evidence that climbers have made an impact in Washington, DC.

"You can see the imprint of climbing on this giant bill," Murdock said. "It's neat that climbers have a presence on Capitol Hill and are able to pull off some things."

Climber representatives pose in front of the nation's capital in Washington, DC, last May during the Access Fund and American Alpine Club's third annual Climb the Hill event, which included more than 60 delegates. [Photo] Stephen GoslingClimber representatives pose in front of the nation's capital in Washington, DC, last May during the Access Fund and American Alpine Club's third annual Climb the Hill event, which included more than 60 delegates. [Photo] Stephen Gosling

Tom Adams, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, emphasized the years of effort by many people that the Natural Resources Management Act represents.

"There's been so much work on all this," he said on the phone after the House vote. "Shout out to [Utah Reps.] John Curtis and Rob Bishop*...a lot of officials have been working on these for a long time—we have to acknowledge the people who paved the way for us." [*Utah legislators were instrumental in the development of the NRMA and many of the previously existing bills it contains.]

What you won't find in the nearly 700-page document is anything pertaining to the status of Bears Ears or Grand Staircase National Monuments in Utah, which Trump reduced from their original designations in December 2017. There were attempts to insert language into the NRMA, both to diminish the Antiquities Act—which presidents have used to bypass Congress and designate national monuments, including those mentioned previously—and to reinstate the original monument designations that were made by President Barack Obama in 2016 and President Bill Clinton in 1996, respectively.

"In order for this to pass, it couldn't include really controversial legislation," Murdock said.

Even then, the Natural Resource Management Act still presents some controversy.

A story by Joi O'Donoghue and Matthew Brow that was published in Desert News on February 25, reported:

...Several [Emery County] residents characterized the land bill as a defeat in a longstanding conflict with environmentalists. They contended that designating current wilderness study areas as formal wilderness or recreational areas doesn't provide certainty if federal land managers can still make the rules on how that land is used.

"I don't see recreation areas as the answer. I want to see wilderness come to an end. Why do we have to have a designation on every square inch of our ground. Why are we not at liberty to enjoy our American lands," said Wellington Mayor Joan Powell, as the crowd of about 60 residents applauded.

Meanwhile, Christopher Solomon wrote an opinion for The Washington Post that was published February 13, titled "The big Alaskan land giveaway tucked into a sweeping conservation bill." He wrote:

Many environmentalists are happy: Wins for public lands and wildlife have been scarce in recent years under an alternately hostile and sclerotic GOP-controlled Congress.... Slice open this giant haggis and peer inside, though: Something reeks. The act contains language that would hand over nearly a half-million acres of federal lands in Alaska—your land and mine—to private hands. That is an area roughly equal to half the size of Long Island, or 31 Manhattans....

"If this were public lands anywhere else in the Lower 48, there would be an absolute uproar. No one would accept that," a frustrated Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told me. But, Kolton added, "Alaska's public lands often tend to be the political grease for land conservation initiatives in the Lower 48, and that's wrong. These are the last fully intact ecosystems in the United States. They shouldn't just be trade-bait to pass broader public lands bills."

Murdock acknowledged that the NRMA isn't perfect.

"Democracy is a messy business. Compromise is needed," he said. But, he added, the huge new bill accomplishes so much more than people had previously dared to hope—"in one stroke of a pen"—and we wouldn't have it without Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican who introduced it to Congress, and her colleague Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who cosponsored the bill. "Sometimes we can't let the 'perfect' get in the way of the 'good,'" he said.

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