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Historic package of public lands bills passes the House of Representatives

by Ryan Henson

On February 26, 2021 the House of Representatives passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness (PAW) and Public Lands Act, also known as H.R. 803, by a vote of 227-200. Of the 52 California members, 42 voted in favor of the package, including new Representative Mike Garcia who represents the Santa Clarita region and whose district includes portions of the Angeles and Los Padres National Forest.

The PAW Act includes federal public land conservations bills from Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Taken together, the bills will protect roughly 1.49 million acres of public land as wilderness and incorporate more than 1,000 river miles of stream into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The bill would also protect more than 1.2 million acres of public land from new oil and gas and mining claims.

H.R. 803 includes four California bills on which CalWild and our partners have been working for over a decade in some cases to pass:

  • The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act sponsored in the House by Representative Jared Huffman
  • The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act sponsored in the House by Representative Salud Carbajal
  • The San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act sponsored in the House by Representative Judy Chu
  • The Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act sponsored in the House by Representative Adam Schiff.

Taken together, these California bills will:

  • Protect 630,728 acres (more than 985 square-miles) of public land as wilderness
  • Protect over 406,00 acres through other designations, including:
    • Expanding the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area by more than 191,000 to preserve the Mediterranean ecosystem surrounding the San Fernando and Simi Valleys;
    • Adding more than 109,000 acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles; and
    • Over 105,000 acres of new national recreation area, scenic area, and other special management designations across the state.
  • Protect 684.5 miles of streams as wild and scenic rivers;
  • Improve the management of lands to enhance equitable benefits for all Americans and to strengthen ecological resilience by:
    • Promoting restoration and fire-resilience on over 729,000 acres of mostly previously logged federal land;
    • Encouraging the cleanup of areas on federal land impacted by illegal marijuana growing;
    • Authorizing the construction of new public lands visitors’ centers;
    • Requiring a study of the feasibility of establishing hundreds of miles of new non-motorized trails;
    • Improving equitable access to public lands; and
    • Ensuring that Indigenous community members can continue to use lands for cultural purposes.

 H.R. 803 was passed relatively quickly by the House because the bills included in it have all had hearings and have been thoroughly discussed and debated as the vast majority of the bill was passed by the House in the last Congress. As the bill approached a final vote, some lawmakers attempted to add amendments opposed by conservationists, including one that would prohibit an area from being designated wilderness if it had recently burned. All of the truly objectionable amendments were voted down.

Another amendment meant to divide the Democrats on renewable energy was offered by Utah Representative John Curtis. The Curtis amendment requires the government to study the lands protected by the PAW Act to determine if they contain any minerals important for renewable energy or battery technology. The amendment passed because several Democrats voted for it, despite the amendment being unnecessary for a host of reasons.

Not all of the amendments were objectionable. For example, the PAW Act was amended to include the Outdoors For All Act. Sponsored by California Representative Nanette Barragán, this bill establishes an outdoor recreation legacy partnership program under which the Department of Interior may award grants to eligible states, counties, cities, tribes, and other entities for projects to acquire land and water for parks and other outdoor recreation purposes, and develop new or renovate existing outdoor recreation facilities. A grant may also be used to develop or renovate outdoor recreational facilities, with priority given to projects that engage and empower underserved communities and youth, provide opportunities for youth employment or job training, establish or expand public-private partnerships, and take advantage of coordination among various levels of government. The Outdoors For All Act is seen as an important step forward in addressing issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion when it comes to public land conservation.

CalWild is thankful to our champions in the House of Representatives for getting us to this point. Now the four California bills must be championed by Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein to be passed by the Senate. This will be no easy feat given the challenging political dynamics in the Senate. The bills in the PAW Act may have to be attached to a must-pass bill that enjoys broader bipartisan support as our champions attempted last year by including it in the National Defense Authorization Act. At a February 25 press conference that was held regarding the PAW Act, Representative Huffman joked that he would “attach the bill to a ham sandwich” if it would help to get it passed. We love that creative thinking.