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Trump signs massive lands, conservation bill into law

Duluth's Spirit Mountain Ski Area is one of hundreds of Minnesota projects that has received federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grants - some $600,000 for the ski area alone. President Trump on Tuesday singed new legislation permanently reauthorizing the fund. News Tribune file photo

President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed one of the most important conservation bills in a decade into law, permanently reauthorizing the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund that pays for parks, wildlife and recreation projects in all 50 states.

The 662-page bill — called the Natural Resources Management Act and named after former Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell — very quietly, but with highly unusual bipartisan support, passed the Senate 92-8 and the House 363-62 in February.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a historically bipartisan program that has funded projects in all 50 states since its inception in 1965 using federal offshore oil well royalties, expired last September. Over the years it has paid for numerous outdoor projects and acquisitions, from the expansion and maintenance of local parks and recreation centers to national forests, national parks and historical sites.

The bill was heralded as the largest improvement in federal land protection since 2009.

"This victory is a testament to the perseverance of many in Congress who wouldn't let America's most successful conservation and recreation program die," said Ed Johnson, president of Environment America.

Years in the crafting, the bill Trump signed combines more than 100 separate bills that collectively designates 1.4 million acres of new wilderness, 367 miles of new scenic rivers and 2,600 miles of new national trails, including a critical adjustment to the North Country Scenic trail that will stretch from Vermont to North Dakota, across Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The bill also made a land title adjustment for part of Voyageurs National Park.

"In Minnesota, we deeply value the outdoors—our lakes, rivers, and wetlands, our forests and prairies, our wildlife habitats, and abundant farmland. It's critical that we protect the natural resources we enjoy because it's our responsibility to pass on this Minnesota way of life to future generations," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement Tuesday. The bill "supports conservation efforts across the country and promotes smart policies that allow our outdoor recreation, fishing, and hunting industries to thrive."

The bill also creates four national monuments, including the home of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and expands three national parks, including Joshua Tree in California.

In addition, the legislation require the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and to begin using drones to scout and map wildfires in real time.

The bill also includes the permanent withdrawal of mineral rights of roughly 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands near Yellowstone National Park.

Trump signed the bill that seems to be in conflict with his administration's efforts to build, drill and mine on public lands and to eliminate conservation safeguards adopted in recent years by Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton. Democrats liked the bill's new environmental protections for wild areas. Republicans praised the bill's expansion of access for hunting and fishing. The bill directs that both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands be open for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting unless specifically closed.

"For the new Congress, this is a strong start and an opportunity to turn the corner after two years of backsliding by the Trump Administration and its allies on Capitol Hill," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society. "By passing this legislation, Congress has embraced conservation and protection of our nation's wild lands and waters."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps pay for projects in cities, counties and on state land, including a $750,000 grant to the city of Duluth in 2017 for new recreational facilities in Lincoln Park. The project improved playgrounds, basketball courts, disc golf and handicapped-accessible trails. Later this year the city will ask for a $250,000 Land and Water Restoration Fund grant to upgrade the Wheeler/Wade athletic complex, said Jim Filby-Williams, the city's director of Public Administration.

Since 1965 the Land and Water Conservation Fund has invested more than $245 million in Minnesota to protect outdoor recreation at urban parks and natural areas like the Saint Croix National Scenic River, Voyageurs National Park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and the Chippewa and Superior national forests. The fund also goes toward protecting ecologically significant areas in Minnesota, such as the Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and the Koochiching-Washington Forest Legacy Project.

"This program is absolutely vital for ... wildlife and hunting access," said Blake Henning, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation chief conservation officer. "The bill further improves public access to public lands by directing federal agencies to open lands for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting unless specifically closed. It also contains a number of other vital conservation measures."

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., was among the few Congressmen who voted against the bill, saying he voted no because it didn't include a provision guaranteeing the U.S. Forest Service land swap for land at the proposed PolyMet copper mine.