On March 12, President Donald Trump signed the biggest public lands bill of the past decade into law. Hold on. I need to repeat that. President Donald Trump signed the biggest public lands bill of the past decade into law. This is not The Onion. It is bizzare, however, to be able to write those words in this era of toxic polarization and an administration that has been wilfully obtuse when it comes to conservation. But it is true.
The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act—named for the late Michigan Democrat who was the longest-serving member of Congress ever and a champion of environmental efforts—is a massive and far-reaching piece of legislation, incorporating more than 120 separate land and water conservation bills into one ambitious moonshot meant to prioritize Americans’ commitment to public lands and clean air and water. It creates 1.3 million acres of new wilderness and 350 miles of wild and scenic river. It designates 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. It withdraws 370,000 acres from oil and gas development in Montana and Washington. It creates five new national monuments (a dizzying concept since one of Trump’s first actions in office when it came to public lands was to shrink monuments despite massive public support). It even expands the idea and the area of national monuments dedicated to the history of African Americans. It protects something in some way in every single state in the nation. No joke.
Perhaps most importantly, it also permanently reauthorizes the vital Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired last year and left important and longstanding conservation and recreation projects across the nation without the cash to operate while politicians dug into bitter divides.
There is no way to undersell it. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act will make a difference for generations.
Don’t praise the president for it, however. He simply put his signature on a piece of legislation that passed the Senate by 92-8 and the House by 363-62. The real work came from grassroots environmental activists who first crafted the individual bills to protect their local sanctuaries. It also, shockingly, came from lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, actually finding common ground and compromise, actually deciding that public lands and the birthright of future generations matter.
That’s not to say the act is perfect. To get something this big accomplished required compromises and deals. There were land swaps in Utah. Some have complained that in Alaska, it allows Native veterans or their families 160-acre allotments from public land—but it’s hard to argue with giving Native people who served this country land that rightfully was always theirs.
Just because President Trump put his name on it doesn’t mean his administration has changed its stance on conservation, either. It continues to degrade air and water quality, deny climate change, prioritize cheap profit over the health of the public and the planet and work to erode these types of protections. But the passage of this act should be a sign that that type of blatant disregard of the environment and public lands is not a policy that can continue.