An old-school green deal

The Law School’s Cary Coglianese offers insight into the massive public lands package that passed the U.S. Senate Feb. 12 with overwhelming bipartisan support.

A rocky, shrubby landscape glows with sunlight under a partially cloudy sky.
California’s Joshua Tree National Park suffered damage during the government shutdown, but stands to benefit from a conservation package that recently passed the Senate. (Photo: National Park Service/Kurt Moses)

On Feb. 12, the Senate passed a sweeping public lands bill with bipartisan support, a package that would protect 1.3 million acres of wilderness, 620 miles of rivers, and 2,600 miles of trails. The Natural Resources Management Act is being called the most comprehensive conservation legislation in a decade and is expected to pass the House of Representatives later this month.

Championed by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, the bill supports public lands projects across the nation. Among other things, it would create four new national monuments; extend the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which offers fourth-graders and their families free entry to parks; and reauthorize the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which provides protections for 380 bird species. 

In addition, the package includes a provision to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which draws money from offshore drilling revenues to allow states to acquire land for conservation and recreation purposes. 

Penn Today checked in with environmental law expert Cary Coglianese of Penn’s Law School and the Penn Program on Regulation to delve into some of the bill’s provisions and what got it passed in this era of hyper-partisan politics.

This bill passed the Senate with a vote of 92 to 8, which in these partisan times seemed like a huge margin of victory. Why do you think it got such strong support?

It reflects an older style of legislating. This is traditional logrolling—or you might even say pork-barrel legislation. There are provisions that affect members of Congress throughout the country, almost without exception. Every state is somehow affected. Some provisions of the bill will benefit hunters and anglers, while others benefit backpackers and mountain climbers. There’s even a provision that Native Alaskans who served in the Vietnam War have a special claim to Alaska land. The bill won such overwhelming support because it appeals to all sorts of constituencies.

A major facet of the bill involves Land and Water Conservation Fund, which states always anxiously await as it is a huge source of revenue for state-level conservation.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund program has needed to be reauthorized since it sunset last September. To see it reauthorized on a permanent basis would be an important development, and one that probably would help reassure states looking for money for their wildlife habitat and other conservation projects. But the bill does not provide any permanent, mandatory source of funding. So even if the Senate bill becomes law, the Fund will still depend on regular appropriations.


Fog rolls into a verdant valley with sunlight hitting the foreground. Evergreen trees dot the mountainside.
Fog rolls into the scenic Yellowstone River Valley. The legislative measure would permanently exclude portions of land surrounding Yellowstone from mining claims, protecting the integrity of the national park. (Photo: National Park Service/Neal Herbert)


What’s the back story on the bill? What were some factors that influenced its passage?

Senators Murkowski and Cantwell have been working on this for quite some time. In an ironic way, the government shutdown and the damage and destruction to various national parks during that time may have helped create a window of opportunity for this to move forward. 

It’s hard not to view the passage of such a sweeping piece of legislation without having been affected in some way by what the public has been expressing about Congress during and following the shutdown. 

Is this purely a win for conservationists or are there components to the bill that appeal to other interests? Are there any surprises here?

If the bill becomes law, some land-swapping will be permitted in certain areas, opening some lands to development that weren’t previously. But overall, this bill would set aside a large amount of land as wilderness and in other ways provide considerable protection for important natural areas. This is the kind of legislation that has broad public support. People in America value the nation’s public lands, its wild places, its clean water, its forests. To see a vote like 92 to 8, it is clear that most senators see this as a win for the entire country. I suspect most of the public would say that, too.

The surprising element is, of course, that a Congress and a Washington, D.C., that seem so highly polarized today can still get something accomplished on a bipartisan basis. Such a sweeping passage by the Senate, with strong Republican support, also stands in contrast to the Trump administration’s public-lands priorities, which have generally moved in a direction opposite of this legislation. 

Cary Coglianese
  Cary Coglianese. Image: Courtesy of Penn Law


What do you see as the longer-term repercussions of this bill?

As I indicated, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is not permanently funded. The bill would permanently authorize the program, but over the long term it will still require Congress to act regularly to put funds into it. We may see some legislators in the future try to secure permanent funding, though there will likely be resistance to going that far.

More broadly, one might hope that maybe Congress will learn from bipartisan action like this and, quite frankly, from the recent bipartisan budget deal as well. The old style of horse-trading in Congress can work to get something done for the American people. Compromise is not a dirty word. It can be essential to getting legislation passed that serves the overall public interest.