The U.S. Senate passed a sprawling public-lands bill 92-8 Tuesday afternoon containing everything from a measure to give Seattle’s Nordic Museum a national designation to one that authorizes a multibillion-dollar Yakima Valley water project politicians here have coveted for years.
Sens. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, introduced the bipartisan bill, which tallies more than 660 pages, promises to reshape public lands across the country and lines up politicians’ favored projects for federal support.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up a version of the bill soon, beginning in the House Natural Resources Committee.
The bill would permanently preserves a pillar of conservation, the recently lapsed Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and also make changes that Cantwell said will help the Northwest, and the rest of the country, prepare for climate change.
The bill would represent a rare, bipartisan compromise that celebrates and bolsters some public lands – for hunting and hiking and conservation – but also recognizes the difficulties those lands face as the climate and environment changes.
“The access to our public lands, the management of our resources is changed and challenged,” Cantwell said. “These important Interior issues need time and attention. If you give them time and attention, you really can come up with solutions.”
The omnibus bill is a compilation of various pieces of legislation Cantwell said would struggle to get time on the Senate floor on their own.
In addition to the LWCF and the Nordic Museum’s designation, many of the measures affect Washington state, including legislative language that:
Prevents new mining activities on some 340,000 acres of federal land in the Methow Valley.
Authorizes federal involvement for the first 10 years of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan.
Creates a volcano early warning system with a 24/7 national volcano watch office.
Creates programs to explore new technologies for fighting wildfire, like drones and GPS tracking.
Facilitates construction of target-shooting facilities on federal lands.
Considered a foundational piece of conservation policy, the LWCF was created in 1964, as a program that takes revenue from oil and gas royalties and directs them toward a fund that gives grants to federal, state and local conservation projects. In Washington, places like Gas Works Park and Dash Point State Park have received LWCF funds.
Spokane County received $500,000 from the fund for Bidwell Park. In 1990, the city of Spokane received $150,000 to fund the development of Friendship Park. In 1984, Washington State Parks received $550,000 to acquire land by the Little Spokane River, and in 1983, Washington State Parks used $43,442 of LWCF funds to develop trails on Mount Spokane, according to data from Investigate Northwest.
“It’s one of the most important federal programs to protect treasured and iconic places,” said Nick Norton, of the Washington Association of Land Trusts, who said Washington has received more than $600 million since the program’s founding.
But in recent years, when the program has come up twice for reauthorization, it’s been a politically turbulent process.
Some senators, like Utah’s Mike Lee, have taken aim at the LWCF because it often provides money for federal land acquisition. The program expired last September. Lee blocked the LWCF’s renewal in the Senate late last year.
Cantwell and Murkowski’s bill would permanently authorize the LWCF, whose matching funds are often “the missing piece to the puzzle” for local conservation projects, according to Norton.
Since a Canadian mining company in 2014 filed for an exploratory drilling permit on Flagg Mountain near Mazama, Okanogan County, community members in the Methow Valley have been organizing and pushing Congress to remove some 340,000 acres of land in the valley from consideration for new mining projects.
The community members are concerned about water quality in the Methow River and its tributary streams, said Maggie Coon, a leader of the Methow Headwaters campaign, which organized opposition to possible mining activity. They also worry that mining could hurt the valley’s aesthetic, as the area’s economy increasingly relies on tourism and recreation.
“A huge copper mine is not compatible with the landscape and natural resources and the economy of this area,” Coon said.
Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, also a Democrat, have introduced several bills for “mineral withdrawal” in the Methow, but the legislation never made much progress on its own.
“We will be thrilled when the Senate takes action. It has been quite a long road,” Coon said before the bill passed.
For years, Cantwell has been pitching her Senate colleagues on a plan to reshape the Yakima basin watershed, which provides for both fish and farmers. This bill might seal the deal.
About a decade ago, state officials, local government leaders, irrigators, tribal leaders, farmers and advocates for fish came together to hash out a 30-year plan to improve the water supply in the Yakima basin, make it more resilient in drought and adapt to a climate future without as much snowpack. The group outlined its plan in 2012.
The plan’s costs are estimated at more than $4 billion over the three decades, said Tom Tebb, director of the state Department of Ecology’s Central Regional Office in Yakima. Washington state and the federal government are expected to share the costs, and the state has already invested millions in conservation projects.
The legislation would allow for federal funding and authorize federal agencies’ involvement during the plan’s first 10 years, including for possible construction of the proposed Lake Kachess drought-relief pumping plant. That proposal, currently in review, would allow irrigators to pay for and build infrastructure on federal land to draw additional irrigation water in dry years.
In the West, where disputes over water rights are often bitter, nail-dragging battles, Cantwell and other proponents see the Yakima plan as a new approach where stakeholders typically at odds with one another are able to work together instead of resorting to messy and unproductive legal fights.
“It means a lot to me, to be able to stick a flag into the ground with a changing climate to say, if we’re going to deal with our problems, we have to come together even though we don’t always agree. And, we have to have a holistic approach,” Cantwell said. “It’s an example of what we need to do if we are going to move forward with our water challenges throughout the West.”
Critics of the Yakima plan say they’re not convinced the projects’ costs will pencil out with its benefits to fish or crops.
Volcanoes and fires
Response to the threat of natural disaster also received top billing in the Murkowski-Cantwell legislation.
The bill would direct federal agencies to explore the use of drones, GPS tracking of firefighters and to attempt to build a system for wildland fire forecasting.
“We need to keeping moving fast on tools to address the changing environment we’re in. We can see how catastrophic these fires have been,” Cantwell said, adding that the record-setting Carlton complex in 2014 left an impression.
Cantwell said drier, hotter climate conditions lead to more fire starts. As the climate shifts, technology could help communities learn of those fire starts more quickly and help firefighting agencies respond more effectively, she said.
“You need information about where those starts are, and to get resources to them, and to help position firefighters,” she said.
Similarly, the bill would create a national early warning and monitoring program for all U.S. volcanoes. The system would include a 24-hour-a-day volcano watch office, a national volcano data center and a grant program for monitoring technology and science research.
Even if the public-lands bill runs into trouble, the Yakima project, which has been on Cantwell’s agenda for years, still has legs.
Congressional members Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Kim Schrier, D-Issaquah, last week introduced a separate House bill specific to the issue that used language identical to the Senate’s.
“I feel like we’re reaching a turning point,” Tebb said. “This is the closest we’ve ever felt.”
Eli Francovich contributed to this report.
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