What's being billed as the most sweeping piece of conservation legislation in more than a decade will provide Tennessee millions of dollars for land and aquatic conservation after overwhelmingly passing the House Tuesday evening.
The Natural Resources Management Act bundles more than 100 individual land bills and re-authorizes the lapsed Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund is the highlight of the act, according to lawmakers, and has provided more than $200 million in conservation to Tennessee since it went into effect in the 1960s. The fund lapsed in September and became the focus of the nearly 700-page measure that is headed for the president's approval.
"This comprehensive legislation will preserve and protect the special places that make the great state of Tennessee a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and provide for a robust tourism industry," Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said in a statement. "East Tennesseans have incredible access to world-class outdoor recreation, whether that be a hike through the Cherokee National Forest or a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and my vote for the package was a vote of support for these special places."
The far-reaching legislation provides provisions for nearly every state. Those provisions were sponsored by 50 senators and co-sponsored by nearly 90 in the last Congress. They have undergone public review in the House, Senate or both, and the majority have passed one chamber, according to a Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources overview.
The package primarily provides opportunity for natural resources and community development in the Western U.S. for areas with limited local conservation opportunities, according to the overview. It addresses a litany of topics including land transfers, wilderness area, historic sites, wildland fire operations, a national volcano early warning and monitoring system, search-and recovery-missions, and more.
The House passed the bill with a strong showing of bipartisan support, 363-62. The Senate bill passed Feb. 12, with a vote of 92-8. The act was supported by all Tennessee congressmen except two new Republican representatives — John Rose, 6th District, and Mark Green, 7th District — and was co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, along with 14 other senators.
"I'm glad the Senate voted to permanently reauthorize the [Land and Water Conservation Fund] because it will help preserve our state's beautiful land, water resources and recreation areas so future generations have the same opportunities to enjoy them as we have," read a statement from Alexander after the Senate vote.
Locally, the impact will be seen with the passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund has provided $3 million in the last 10 years to the Cumberland Trail, Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park and South Cumberland State Park. Elsewhere in the state, the act will expand Shiloh National Military Park; preserve the James K. Polk Home in Columbia; and name the Foothills Parkway's Bridge 2 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park after the late Dean Stone, the longtime editor of The Daily Times in Blount County.
"At the heart of the Natural Resources Management Act is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is one of America's most essential federal conservation programs," Michael Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.
The dissenting votes in both the House and the Senate were cast by Republican lawmakers, despite being widely approved by both parties.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee voted against the bill after state residents voiced concerns about the federal control of land — the bill protects 1 million acres as designated wilderness in the western U.S.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against it because he wanted to see two Kentucky-specific amendments added to the bill before it was approved, while Rose cited government spending within the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a concern.
"This bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It made some good structural changes but they were not substantial enough to curtail the current irresponsible spending that plagues our country," reads a statement from Rose.
Natural Resources Management Act reactions
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.:
“I was proud to support passage of the Natural Resources Management Act and see the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanently reauthorized. The LWCF provides critical funding for Tennessee’s many national and state parks and supports conservationists and sportsmen alike. This comprehensive legislation will preserve and protect the special places that make the great state of Tennessee a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and provide for a robust tourism industry. East Tennesseans have incredible access to world-class outdoor recreation, whether that be a hike through the Cherokee National Forest or a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and my vote for the package was a vote of support for these special places.”
Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation:
“At the heart of the Natural Resources Management Act is the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is one of America’s most essential federal conservation programs. Since 1964, it has invested $189 million in Tennessee to protect wildlife refuges, improve state and community parks, maintain backcountry hunting and fishing access, and build trails and other recreation amenities. That’s despite it being fully funded only a handful of years over the last half-century.
The Natural Resources Management Act is a large bill that contains some elements that aren’t ideal but all-in-all it is critical to stopping the erosion of our natural resources. It does much to stop the erosion in our important conservation programs, but we have much left to do if we are to stop the decline seen in our natural resources and wildlife.”
Phil Francis, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks chairman and former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway:
“We celebrated when the Natural Resources Management Act passed the Senate and we are thrilled by its passage in the House today. The protection of our irreplaceable natural and cultural resources is truly a bipartisan issue and we applaud Congress for working together to ensure continued protection of our national parks and public lands.”
Mark R. Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy:
“Ultimately, LWCF is about preserving the best of America by protecting our lands and waters, our wildlife and ways of life. The overwhelmingly bipartisan votes in the House and Senate to renew LWCF reflect our nation’s longstanding commitment to conservation, ensuring future generations will benefit from LWCF. We are grateful for LWCF’s champions in the House and Senate, all whom have worked hard to achieve permanent reauthorization, and we look forward to the President signing this measure into law.”
Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation president and CEO:
“In an era when bipartisanship remains elusive, conservation is a rare issue that still brings Congress together. Today’s passage of a bipartisan public lands package, including permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and numerous conservation measures, represents a historic victory for our wildlife heritage and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe. We urge the president to sign this bill into law posthaste.”